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.
Image by papaija2008 from freedigitalphotos.net

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.
Image by supakitmod from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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

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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

Water is not water: a swimmer’s view of staying in the present

swimming

When you swim, do you assume the water is always the same? Or when performing, is the audience just another audience?

Today might be the day you begin to re-evaluate!

I’ve just finished reading one of my Christmas presents – the autobiography of Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe. He’s famous for his world record swims from the age of 14, his very large feet, and his decision to quit competitive swimming at age 24, at the height of his career.

The opening paragraphs of the book were a revelation to me, a non-swimmer who had never thought about water before. Here’s what Thorpe says:

“When I first dive into the pool I try to work out how the water wants to hold me. If I let it, the water will naturally guide me into a position; a place for my body to settle… This is the starting point for me, not just floating but lying flat on top of the water. Then I begin to initiate movement…”*

For Thorpe, water isn’t just Water, and a pool isn’t just A Pool. They aren’t constants. The water changes, and is different day by day. His first act when diving in isn’t to thrust forward and begin his swimming stroke. Rather, he waits for feedback from the water. He waits to find out what this water is like, today. How can he best swim in this water, on this day?

I was really struck by this because it reminded me of FM Alexander’s emphasis on analysing the conditions present as part of the development of what we now call the Alexander Technique. Alexander wanted us to take notice of what was happening around us, and then design a custom-built response. An off-the-shelf once size fits all solution wouldn’t be good enough, because Alexander said that in modern life “conditions change so constantly that they cannot be adequately met by any external standard or fixed code as to what is right or wrong.”**

So external conditions change. Water isn’t a constant, according to Ian Thorpe. At this point I began to think about other objects and places I or my students sometimes treat as unchanging constants. The thing is, the more I think about it, the fewer constants I can find.

An audience isn’t the same day to day.
A road isn’t the same day to day.
A musical instrument isn’t the same day to day.
A person isn’t the same day to day.

My challenge to you this week is a simple one: take a look at your daily activities. Are there any places/objects/people that you treat as being unchanging? Would it benefit you to try considering them changeable, and alter the way you react based on how they appear each day?

Oh, and if you want to read a wonderfully poetic musician’s take on the challenge of staying with present circumstances, read Patrick Smith’s blog.

* Ian Thorpe and Robert Wainwright, This is Me, Simon and Schuster, 2012, p. xi.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p. 472.
Image by Salvatore Vuono from FreeDigitalPhotos.net