What running a half marathon taught me about doing the work.

Me reaping the rewards of doing the work

Last Sunday I ran my first ever half marathon. I’m going to write about it, not because I’m proud of myself (although I am), and not because I want praise. I learned something about the nature of goals and work, and about how we mess ourselves up by misrepresenting them. I’m writing about my experience because I think it simultaneously destroys a couple of myths and demonstrates a really important principle.

Myth 1: “you must be really amazing.”

No, I’m not. Five or six years ago I would have had trouble running for a bus. I’ve been overweight and unfit, and I’m definitely not naturally sporty. I just decided to change, and then did the work to make it happen.

Similarly, FM Alexander wasn’t special. He was just some guy from small-town Tasmania. But he wanted to sort out his vocal problems, so he decided to do the work to make that happen.

Myth 2: “a goal like that is so big, I could never do it.”

This myth is tricky, because it is wrong on two levels. First of all, what looks like the goal (the half marathon) isn’t the true motivating factor. I didn’t wake up one morning and just decide to do a half marathon, any more than FM Alexander just decided to found a whole new field of psycho-physical education. He wanted to act again without losing his voice; I wanted to gain a level of fitness to ensure I’ll stay healthy as I get older. For FM, creating what we now call the Alexander Technique was something that happened because he became fascinated with the process of what he was doing to solve his vocal problems. For me, entering a half marathon happened because I got fascinated by distance running, and because having a race in the calendar helps me to stay disciplined with my training. In both cases, the big goal isn’t actually the true motivating factor. FM and I had intrinsic motivations that were way more important.

The second way this myth bites is that it assumes that the Half Marathon (or whatever the apparent goal is) is too big and scary to achieve. Someone new to running will look at the 13.1 miles, and see an overwhelmingly long course. Which it is.

But it isn’t impossible. It’s just a big goal, which needs to be broken down into more achievable chunks. You take advice. You work consistently. And by working the smaller steps, the larger goal takes care of itself. This is what FM was getting at when he said:

Only time and experience in the working out of the technique will convince him that 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.[1]

Principle: You can do the work.

What I’ve learned, and what I hope I’m modelling here, is that anyone can do the work.

It’s worth repeating: ANYONE CAN DO THE WORK.

Human beings are amazing. We can achieve amazing things, all of us. But certain conditions need to be met before we can unleash our amazingness upon the world.

  • Have a WHY. Motivation is really important, and intrinsic motivation is the best kind. I wanted to improve my fitness so I can maintain my health as I get older. FM wanted to keep acting – a profession he loved.
  • Have a goal. I chose a half marathon (and previously, some 10k races). FM wanted to recite and maintain his vocal condition.
  • Use the tools to hand. FM used a mirror or three. I found a fantastic website that tailor-made a training programme for me. I talked to friends, and gathered advice. Look at what is around that can help you.
  • Get help and external accountability. I made sure that friends knew what I was up to, so that they would ask me how the training was going. FM checked his physical condition with friends and doctors.[2]
  • Keep going. It takes a certain level of persistence and mental discipline to keep going when things get difficult. One of my favourite sentences in the whole of Evolution of a Technique is when FM says, “Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that the problem was hopeless.”[3] Even when FM’s investigations were going apparently very badly, he kept working. This is where your intrinsic motivation becomes really important. I had plenty of rubbish training runs, but I still kept going.
  • Be prepared to laugh at yourself. My teacher’s teacher, Marjorie Barstow, advocated it, and I think it’s an important point. Take the process seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.

Running a long race isn’t for everyone. But I think we all have ideas and goals and dreams, and often we cheat ourselves out of them. What would happen if you chose to honour them instead, and do the work?

[1] FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, Irdeat ed., p.587.

[2] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.28.

[3] ibid., p.36.

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

First principles: why starting from the top is good

first principles are a pathway to success

First principles – boring?

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

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

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

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

First principles – different every time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by tungphoto, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

5 Alexander Technique steps to everyday happiness: 3. Practice, practice, practice!

An old joke to begin:

Rumour has it that once, a pedestrian on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhatten stopped Jascha Heifitz (or possibly Artur Rubenstein!) and asked, “Could you tell me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The great musician replied, “Practice, practice, practice!” *

carnegie_hall

I’ve noticed that the concept of practice has been popping up in blog posts gain, and in very diverse fields. For example, author Sarah Duncan recently wrote a post discussing the importance of writing consistently if you want to be any good. And an article by Sonia Simone appeared on the Copyblogger website which talked about the importance of practice to copywriters and graphic designers.

So the concept of ‘doing the work’ is in the air at the moment. Which is great, because it is one of those topics that is so important that it needs to get a regular airing.

And doing the work is definitely a part of the Alexander Technique. Writing in 1911, FM Alexander said, “Fortunately for us, there is not a single one of these habits of mind, with their resultant habits of body, which may not be altered by the inculcation of those principles concerning the true poise of the body which I have called the principles of mechanical advantage…” **

FM’s use of the word ‘inculcation’ is interesting. He wants us to fix an idea in our minds with constant repetition. Sounds a bit like practice to me!

 

But what sort of practice?

Sonia Simone’s article takes a slightly different slant, though, and it is one that I really like. She asks us to think about the type of practice we are doing, not just the quantity. Because, as she says, “10,000 hours of playing the scales is easy (if really, really boring), but it won’t get you to Carnegie Hall. And even 10 hours of the right kind of practice will bring you something meaningful and interesting.” ***

So we don’t need to do masses and masses of hours of practice – though some consistency would be good! But what are we going to practice? How can we practice the Alexander Technique effectively so that we can move and think more freely and easily?

Well, FM gives us the key in the passage I quoted. He wants us to inculcate (fix in our heads by repetition) the “principles concerning the poise of the body”.

Principles.

Not exercises. Not positions. Not lists of instructions.

Principles.

Principles are great things. They are, in Stephen Covey’s words, fundmental truths of universal application. Remember a principle, and you can apply it pretty much everywhere.

So what principles should we remember?

Yes, I could give you a list. I could give you lots of lovely things to think about. But I’m not.

You see, the other danger with practice is trying to do too much all at once. I would rather you worked with one or maybe two ideas and had some success, than that you tried to work on 6 or 8 things and failed dismally. So…

I recommend starting with just these two ideas, and see how far you get.

  1. Before you start doing something, think about how you are going to do it.
  2. When you stop doing something… STOP!

Tell me in the comments how you get on!

 

* You can find a discussion on the joke at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnegie_Hall
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.57.
*** Sonia Simone, ‘The 5 Keys to Content Marketing Mastery’, http://www.copyblogger.com/content-marketing-mastery/

 

Alexander Technique and Singing: Process, not Product

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This is the story of my most recent singing lesson, where I learned once again the vital importance of the Alexander Technique’s emphasis on process, not product. It mirrors very neatly the experience of a delightful colleague of mine, Bill Plake, playing his saxophone. When you finish my article, swing on by and read his.

I have been having singing lessons for a few years now. I am lucky that my teacher, Gerald, has had Alexander Technique lessons, and knows the books of FM Alexander fairly well.

At my most recent lesson, we began, as always, with some exercises. Gerald played the notes that he wished me to sing. I sang them. We did this, going up the scale a little way. Then Gerald paused, and thought for a moment. He didn’t tell me that what I had done was wrong. Gerald almost never does this. Rather, he asked me to do the exercise again, but with one vital difference. He asked me to sing the notes with my fingers in my ears.

At first, I didn’t want to do it. A stubborn streak in me resisted, whether from vanity or a deep-seated suspicion of trickery. But I trust Gerald, so I sighed, put my fingers in my ears as requested, listened hard to hear the notes from the piano, and then sang.

It was weird.

The sound I could hear inside my head was bizarre. I could barely hear the piano.  I couldn’t hear anything else at all – none of the sound of my own voice that I was used to hearing bouncing off the walls of Gerald’s teaching room. I had no idea at all if it sounded good, bad, indifferent, or downright awful. I didn’t even have feedback as to whether I was hitting the right notes. So I just sang.

The experience was completely discombobulating and yet strangely clarifying all at the same time. The sound feedback I was getting from inside my own head was thoroughly unfamiliar and it was tempting to be carried away by the shock of it.

At the same time, though, I realised that the removal of all my usual markers for how I was singing was freeing me. There was nothing pretty to listen to. So all I could do was think about the process of what I was trying to do. I was thinking just about the note, the vowel, and the breath. It was astonishingly, daringly simple. It couldn’t possibly sound any good. Could it?

Then I looked at Gerald. He was smiling. This is a good sign.

I still don’t really know how it actually sounded. Gerald was pleased, though, and that’s good enough for me. But that isn’t the point.

The point of the story: complete commitment, total detachment

What I learned last singing lesson was a practical demonstration of what I talked about in my blog Banishing Stage Fright with the Jazzmen, part 2. I learned about the primary importance of process over product.

You can’t directly control product. It just doesn’t work. Product is of its very nature the outcome of some sort of process. So if you want to make the product as good as possible, the only real choice you’ve got is to work on the process.

FM Alexander put it this way: “where the ‘means-whereby’ are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable… We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.”*

What FM Alexander asks for is no less than this: complete commitment to the process, and total detachment from the outcome.

Of course, it is easy to say this in theory. But it quite another to experience it in practice.

So I have a challenge for you: can you find one situation this week where you can make an attempt at complete commitment to process, and total detachment from the outcome? Tell me what it is in the comments!

FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, in the IRDEAT edition, p.587.