Pick one thing: the causal factor that changes everything

A causal factor is like pushing the first domino in a domino runOne little domino: the causal factor

Have you ever watched a video of one of those amazing domino runs? The ones that split, go over obstacles, do amazing things? I’m always fascinated by those sorts of displays: the time it must take to set them up, the precision… And the fact that the whole display depends on pushing just one little domino to make it work.

This works for far more than simply dominos. It is the experience of my students, and countless other Alexander Technique students, that if you pick the right spot to make a change, everything else will improve around it.

The causal factor in the wild

FM Alexander found that if he focused on preventing pulling back his head, he also stopped depressing his larynx and sucking in breath, and his vocal condition improved.

One of my students found that, but thinking about how she opened her mouth to sing, she prevented a scrunching down in her neck and could improve not just her singing, but her ability to concentrate upon the words and the line of the song.

Another of my students, a jazz pianist, found that by focusing on listening to the noes he wanted to play inside his head and just allowing his fingers to do what they needed to do, he was able not just to play more effectively and beautifully, but also stop doing all the movements in his legs and jaw that were bothering him.

So what’s going on? Why does it work?

Why the causal factor exists.

A bit like the domino run, everything has to start somewhere. If you look at the dominos laid out ready to go, they look like a selection of separate pieces. It is only when you push the first one that you realise they are all connected.

It’s the same with the problems that FM Alexander found when he watched himself in the mirror. He saw three ‘harmful tendencies’, and they may have looked like three separate things, but FM guessed that it was likely that they were all connected, just like the dominos. The scientific principle involved is called the Principle of Parsimony (or Occam’s Razor) – the simplest solution to any problem is likely to be the right one. FM correctly made the assumption that the three separate physical act he saw were related to one causal factor. He then worked hard to find the causal factor, and successfully prevented himself from doing it.

And we can all do this. My singing student decided not to dilute her attention by trying to think of neck, breathing, opening note, words, and countless other things that obsess singers; she thought about how she opened her mouth, and found that everything else improved indirectly as a result. My jazz pianist found that by focusing on the notes in his head, he was free to let his well-trained fingers find the notes for themselves, and he was more able to stop the other extraneous movements.

So next time you are stuck with a problem that seems intractable, or you have a ton of things you could concentrate upon and you don’t know where is best, try doing this:

  • Ask yourself what is the most important thing about the activity you are about to do. What is your main focus? What action starts the activity? Is there part of the activity that involves high-up axial structures like the head and neck?
  • Decide to commit yourself to focusing on that one thing that you’ve decided is important.
  • Do it. Not just once, but a number of times. Note your results.

You may not pick exactly the right One Thing that changes everything first time around. We know that FM Alexander took a little while to find the right causal factor for his vocal troubles. But when you find it, just like the domino run, everything will have a chance to change and flow.

 

Image courtesy of posterize at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

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.

Do you view performance as process, or as an end?

Pink Noise in performanceWhen preparing to perform, do you view the performance as process, or as an end to be gained?

Over the last few months, I’ve had a number of students (acting and music) articulate their ideas about an upcoming performance in the following way:

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

In other words, I think it’s very easy for actors and musicians to go very happily through the process of rehearsing, learning, experimenting and exploring – until the performance. Then it can be every so tempting to believe that the process that led you to that point is over, and that your job is to deliver a finished product.

Speaking for myself, I know that I have often fallen into the trap of thinking of the actual performance as an end point. I have been very happy to go through a process involving thinking and learning about the music/script during rehearsals, but with the view that I am doing so in order to have a completed product to put in front of the audience at opening night. But what if the performance isn’t an end point or anything to be gained/achieved?

What if it is just another part of the process? In fact, what if the performance is the same process?

Performance as process

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

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

This was exactly the problem that FM Alexander discovered when he was trying to find a solution to his vocal problems. He had formulated a new plan for how to use his mechanisms (his body!) in speaking, and had practiced and practiced. But he realised that, at the critical moment of going to speak, he threw it away and reverted to his older manner of use. It was only when FM found a way of continuing to think about the process he had designed up to and through the critical moment of beginning to speak, that he began to experience sustained improvement.[1]

So how do we as performers achieve similar sustained improvement?

Ideas to promote performance as process

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

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

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.428.

There is no magic bullet: true grit as the key to achieving your goals

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So often, if we’re really honest, we would love to be given the magic bullet that will fix our problems quickly.

The secret to playing that semiquaver passage.

The key to losing those last few pounds(kilos for me – I’m a metric girl).

The one thing that will make that bit of writing better.

Because if we were given that magic bullet, we wouldn’t have to go through the stress, struggle and frustration of not being sufficiently good enough. We’d be able to skip that nasty bit, and go straight on to the ‘doing it easily with no effort at all’ stage, quickly and easily. And there’d be no problems ever again…

Reality check 1: there is no magic bullet

There just isn’t. We know this. Dreaming about it is fun for a while, but ultimately doesn’t help us progress in our endeavours.

Reality check 2: even if there was a magic bullet, it wouldn’t mean the end of struggle

The simple fact of the matter is that, if we are progressing, we will always be running up against things we can’t do yet. This means that we will always experience some level of frustration.

I think the notion of the ‘struggle-free zone’ is a false belief based on the idea that there is some kind of condition of ‘perfect’ where, once our problems are sorted, everything will be easy. But a lot of problems just aren’t like that. There are a lot of activities and problems in the world that have no end point. For example, in his book The Myth of the Garage, Chip Heath relates the story of the program manager for the anti-smoking initiative in North Carolina, and how she approached the goal of reducing smoking across the state.* Even with the best will in the world, the chances of 100% success in stopping smoking across an entire state seems highly unlikely! To use a very different example, most actors will tell you that you never really finish working on a character – there is no point where you know everything that there is to know about Hamlet.

And on one level, we know this to be true. We know that, to quote FM Alexander, “if a person is to make [a] change successfully, it must be by a gradual process of change from day to day”**

The difficulty is that we don’t get much in the way of feedback when we’re in the midst of this gradual process. Students often report having the experience of feeling as though they aren’t making sufficient change when they’re working by themselves, or that they aren’t ‘doing it right’ because things aren’t changing as fast as they hoped.

And this is where grit comes in. Chip Heath describes grit as “endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity.” What I like about this definition is that it has no reference to results, only to pursuit of goals. The reality of the creative life (actually, not just the creative life) is that most things aren’t easy, and very few of them have definite end points. We are making improvements one step at a time, one decision at a time. We don’t get (to borrow Heath’s words) the obvious “psychic payoff” of a categorical success; just the knowledge of another step taken.

How do we avoid the mystique of the magic bullet?

By making sure we keep our heads straight, and asking ourselves some simple questions.

  • Is it a problem with a definite end point? (Baking a cake? Yes! Learning and performing a piece of music? Probably no)
  • Am I prepared to look for, accept, and celebrate even small changes that move towards my goal?
  • Can I find a way of helping me measure small improvement? (Recording my practice sessions, finding a friend to listen to me every couple of weeks, etc)
  • Can I programme a periodic review, so that I can look back and assess how things are going over a longer time period?

Try these ideas out, and see if they help you deal with the frustration of the daily battle for improvement. Value grit, and eschew the magic bullet. And be sure to let me know how it turns out.

* Heath, C., The Myth of the Garage, Kindle ed., loc.747.
** FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT ed., p.585.
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The talent myth – why we really can have a go at anything we choose

musician2

Have you ever been faced with a complicated bit of arithmetic and thought ‘I’m just not good at maths’? Or struggled to run to catch the bus, wheezing and thinking ‘I was never sporty’? If so, then you may need to think again. The talent myth has you in thrall.

The talent myth – or the recognition that people having an ‘inbuilt’ natural ability is just a false belief – has become a bit of a commonplace in the past few years. Readers of Matthew Syed or Malcolm Gladwell are familiar with the concept of the 10 000 hours rule, and the concept of ‘putting in the hours’ to achieve mastery is well on the way to becoming a cliche in self-development blogs.

But the idea that talent is not a fait accompli delivered by genetics, but rather a quantity that can be developed and trained in anyone, is not a new one. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki Method, firmly believed that there is no such thing as natural ability – that any child could exhibit remarkable abilities if they received a careful and nurturing environment in which to grow and mature.*  Notably, though his Method is now almost synonymous with musical training, he himself described his system as Talent Education.

Reading this, I was inspired to read again FM Alexander’s beliefs about children and education. Alexander is more careful about allowing there to be limits to a child’s potential within its genetic make-up. However, both men, when faced with the question of whether genetics or environment is the more important factor influencing a child’s future success, come down firmly on the side of environment.

And environment, dear readers, means us – parents, educators, friends, and general public. If Suzuki and Alexander are right, we create the conditions in which children develop their gifts – and their deficits – and then laud the gifts by labelling them ‘talent’. That’s the talent myth.

So how does the environment in which a child grows up create such a major impact on success? This is FM’s view:
The child of the present day … is the most plastic and adaptable of living things. At this stage the complete potentiality of conscious control is present… Unfortunately, the usual procedure is to thrust certain habits upon it without the least consideration of cause and effect, and to insist upon these habits until they have become subconscious and have passed from the region of intellectual guidance.**
In other words, children either choose or are forced to take on board ideas about what is right and normal, whether or not there is any logical reasoning behind them, and with no regard to whether the ideas will cause harm in the long run. And then they accept the ideas as normal, and choose how to act based upon them.
And this can generate odd effects. Things that we came to accept as true about ourselves when younger become unquestioned ‘facts’ as we grow up.
Suzuki tells the story of a young violinist who had come to believe that she had clumsy hands because she couldn’t play a passage as fast as she wanted. By an artful process of questioning and demonstration, Suzuki showed the girl that there wasn’t anything wrong with her fingers, merely about her idea of what her fingers could achieve.  When Suzuki gave her a different practice process to follow, she played the passage easily and without complaint.***
FM Alexander summed it up very simply in his second book:
I have no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.****
If we are to take Suzuki and Alexander at their word, we need to at least entertain the idea that our ideas about what we can do and what we can’t are just that – ideas. They are a product of our childhoods, of our schooling, of our friendships, and of our experiences. But there is nothing to say that our ideas are right, or accurate, or based on any firm foundation.
What if ‘tone deaf’ is just an idea?
What if ‘not sporty’ is just a label?
What if ‘not sciencey’ is just a decision we’ve made?
If this is true, then we’d be free to change our minds, and make a decision to create an entirely new version of ourselves.
And wouldn’t that be fun?

 

* Suzuki, S., Nurtured by Love, Exposition Press 1969, pp.46-7.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.73.
*** Suzuki, op.cit., p.48.
**** Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.294.

Unbridled enthusiasm – tips for a great New Year from Alexander and Caesari

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Are you filled with enthusiasm for the coming year?

How are you going with your New Year’s Resolutions?

Or have you worked out your goals for 2014? Are you sticking to your plans so far?

If you’re anything like me, you experience a heady mix of emotions at the beginning of the year as you make plans for how you want to best use your time and energies. And it can be tricky navigating a path through the mix of excitement, puzzlement, enthusiasm, fear and confusion.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, as I started one of my holiday reading books, to come across a reminder of some of the most important lessons that FM Alexander teaches us about navigating the process of change and development.

My holiday reading was called The Alchemy of Voice, written by singing teacher E. Herbert-Caesari. In the opening chapter, the author exhorts singing students to strive, experiment and practise daily – all good things, I’m sure you’ll agree! But then he issues this warning:

 

Let the student beware, however, of three prominent evils:

  • Unbridled enthusiasm which leads to precipitancy and excesses;
  • Impatient expectation of rapid measurable results;
  • Discouragement in face of temporary or occasional failure.*

What a list! It’s such a powerful selection of principles that I’m going to spend this blog post just talking about the first of Caesari’s three points: the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm.

 

Unbridled enthusiasm – too much of a good thing.

When my son made chapattis recently, he decided not to follow the written recipe instructions. Measuring ingredients seemed slow and tedious. Instead, he decided to put two large double handfuls of flour in his bowl, sprinkle in a bit of salt, and then slosh in some water.

The mix was a little dry, so he added more water.

The mix was still too dry, so he added a little more water.

The mix was STILL too dry, so he added… a lot more water. A whole lot. His chapatti mix looked a little like soup. It needed a lot more flour, and some adult help, to bring it back to being the right consistency.

Caesari’s point at the beginning of his book is that singers are a little like my son. He decided that he knew what chapatti dough looked like, so he didn’t need to measure ingredients. He knew what he was doing. Similarly, Caesari suggests that singers very often think they know what sort of sound they want to achieve, and don’t necessarily follow a reasoned process to get there.

But it isn’t just singers who are like that, and it isn’t just my son. I suspect everyone has this experience. We are convinced we know what our end product should be, so in our enthusiasm to get to the end, we skip some of the slow, boring, tedious, necessary steps that will get us there.

FM Alexander certainly had this experience. In 1910 he wrote:

One day I hope to write an account of how I arrived at the practical elucidation of my principles of conscious control, and when I do, I shall show very plainly how one of the greatest, if not the greatest danger against which I had to fight was my own enthusiasm. It is as vivid and keen today as it was over twenty years ago, but I should never have worked out my principles, if I had allowed it to dominate my reason.**

Enthusiasm and reason

Notice that Alexander doesn’t say that enthusiasm is bad. Neither does Caesari. They both say that unbridled enthusiasm is bad. Unbridled enthusiasm blinds us; it stops us from assuming that we know everything, and causes us to miss out vital steps. It stops us from using our heads.

So this is what we must do:

  • Be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is good. It keeps us going through the inevitable failures and disappointments along the path to our goals;
  • Remember that we don’t know it all! Humility will keep us remembering that we need to watch out for our hidden assumptions and blind spots;
  • Keep using our heads and following all the steps. It’s hard to be a good musician if you don’t practise. It’s hard to keep fit if you don’t exercise. It’s hard to be a writer if you don’t write! Keep showing up, and keep doing the steps.

If we follow these pointers, then together we can all make a true difference to ourselves, to our families, and to our communities this year. Wouldn’t that be a great thing?

 

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.90. And he did write that account of how he arrived at his principles of conscious control – it’s the first chapter of his book The Use of the Self.
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Performance as process, not product

Recorders are where I learn about performance as process

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if it is just another part of the process?

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

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

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

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

So how do we as performers achieve similar sustained improvement?

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

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

 

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

 

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