Mix it up! Why changing your routines makes you better

changing your routines gets you out of grooves

Chiropractors who only work from one side of the bench.

Music students who use the same practice room at the same time every day.

Runners who follow the same route every training run.

People who park in the same parking space every single day.

What do these people have in common?

They’ve fallen into a groove.

“The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when set in action, slides along the familiar, well-worn path.” [1]

Grooves can be good. They help us to get through every day of our lives – they speed up decision making and get us through our days faster. But…The problem with the groove is that, while you’re in it, you’re not thinking hugely effectively. You may be following an established protocol very easily, but you won’t necessarily have analysed whether that protocol is really best for your needs. Sometimes your protocol will be sound, but at other times it will be staggeringly inappropriate, and you’ll be too busy in your groove to notice.

For example, it may look like a time saving measure for a physical therapist or chiropractor to stick to one side of the table for making adjustments on patients. They don’t have to move as much, and they get really good at adjustments on that side. But it comes at a price: they risk being less comfortable if they have to work in a different space where they are forced to use their ‘wrong’ side. And they risk muscle fatigue and injury to the side that is working harder.

Similarly, the music students I work with tend to love the routine of just block-booking a practice room as far into the future as the computer system will allow. They book the same room, and the same time. It gives a rhythm to their day-to-day life, and makes practice as normal a part of the day as eating or sleeping. But this also comes at a cost. When these students come to do recitals, they have to perform in very different rooms at different times of day. At a time when they already have the pressure of grading, they also leave themselves open to the disorientation of new spaces and different circadian rhythms, a new acoustic, and a lack of the environmental cues that helped them to memorise their pieces. The added load from all these new stimuli can be enough to hinder them from performing as well as they could.

Nonplussed by the unexpected

FM Alexander knew this only too well. In his first book he recounts a story of a young man who had been given an introduction to one of FM’s students, a prominent businessman. The young man hoped for a job, but was stunned when the businessman shouted at him, “What the devil do you know about business?”

“Of course,” the young man continued, “I was so unnerved that I could not even collect my thoughts and I was so flurried that I could not answer his further questions. He told me he hadn’t any position to suit me.” “My dear young man,” I remarked, “why did you allow Mr. —– to insult you? Why did you not remonstrate with him …” “I was so upset by his sudden attack, and I didn’t expect to be treated in such a way.” “Just so,” I replied, “you were nonplussed by the unexpected. But I hope this will be a lesson to you. Mr. —– was only testing you, and he wants men who are capable of dealing with unexpected events and situations in his business.”[2]

We need to be ready for the unexpected. We need to be able to deal with stimuli that could cause fear, and the way to do this is through  knowingly and deliberately breaking your grooves, in order that you can improve your physical and mental flexibility and your tolerance of stress.

Physical and Mental flexibility

I know it seems fairly obvious, but unthinkingly carrying out the same physical protocols day in, day out, is not likely to be hugely beneficial for your physical health. You run the risk of never actually taking even a moment to STOP, and allow your body to properly rest.

But this is true mentally, too. Trapping yourself in an unthinking groove won’t help you mentally either. To take the musical example, if you mix up the practice room you use and the time of day you practise, you are giving yourself low-stakes opportunities to experience different acoustics and different experiences of playing. This gives you the mental flexibility to be able to deal with changes of space, time and audience when you perform. This means that you’ll be far less likely to be phased by a grumpy examiner, or that audience member rustling a cough sweet wrapper for an eternity!

Small amounts of stress are good

Deliberately changing your routines will also leave you less open to amygdala hijack. This is where your reasoning centres become unable to inhibit the fear reaction from the primitive parts of your brain, making it difficult to think or remember anything.[3] By choosing to mix things up, you are helping your brain to develop the reasoning power and mental discipline to control your amygdala more effectively. There is an increasing body of evidence that choosing to undergo small amounts of stress helps to prime your brain for improved performance by causing the production of new nerve cells that help you to be more alert. [4]

So try changing your routines. Find ways of subtly placing yourself under a modest (and short-lived) amount of stress.

  • If you are doing an audition, for example, choose to play in lots of different spaces with different acoustics, and choose to play in front of people.
  • If you’re doing a half marathon (like I will be soon), choose to run at different times of day, or after doing some heavy mental work, in order to stretch your mental discipline.
  • If you are involved in an occupation where it is tempting to do things one way all the time, see if you can find a way to change your movement patterns.

Your mind and your body will thank you for it.

[1] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.67.

[2] ibid., pp.140-141.

[3] Katwala,A., The Athletic Brain, London, Simon & Schuster 2016, p.123.

[4] http://news.berkeley.edu/2013/04/16/researchers-find-out-why-some-stress-is-good-for-you/

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

Sitting all day – is it evil?

Businessman stretching in an office

Is sitting all day evil? There are increasing numbers of articles in fashionable magazines and on trendy websites that will tell you that yes, sitting is intrinsically evil and can kill you. The Huffington Post, for example, seems to run an article on the evils of sitting every couple of months.

I mean, we always knew that sitting, especially sitting all day was a problem. Huge numbers of people experience discomfort through sitting, especially at their desks and computers. Backs, necks, shoulders all seem to beg for mercy. But now we’re told that sitting isn’t just uncomfortable – it can actually shorten your lifespan.

Is it true, and what can we do about it?

 

Sitting is the new smoking.

That’s the advice Marc Hamilton, director of the Inactivity Physiology Program at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, gave to the magazine Runner’s World. Apparently, sitting for long periods may cause an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase to decrease in the bloodstream. As this enzyme clears noxious fats out of the bloodstream, this is bad news. Apparently this sends out harmful biological signals that could be implicated in cardiovascular disease.

According to the articles I’ve seen, sitting still for long periods has been linked to not just obesity, but cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, though personally I’d want to see more studies come up with similar results before I got too worked up about the evidence.

But before you panic and throw away all your chairs (as some people have done, and would advise you to do – see this article), let’s examine the issue with the clear-sightedness that FM Alexander would want us to use.

 

Problem number 1: chairs are not cigarettes

Sitting is part of our normal range of movement behaviours. It’s one of the things we are designed to be able to do. If we say that one movement behaviour is intrinsically bad, how many others will we find that are just as evil or worse? What about rock climbing (all that looking upwards), or playing the violin (having your head tilted to the side can’t be good for you, surely) – should we ban those, too?

If there’s a problem with sitting all day, that’s not the chair’s fault, but ours for thinking that doing any one thing for prolonged periods isn’t going to have repurcussions. It’s a bit like food. I love chocolate, but I don’t eat it every day. I love carrots too, but if I ate them for every meal I’d soon turn orange. Who tied us down and forced us to sit in the one spot all day long?

 

Problem 2: Will exchanging standing for sitting be any better?

Instead of sitting all day, why not stand up or work out? A lot of authors out there on the web are telling their readers to exchange their chairs and conventional desks for ‘standing workstations’ or treadmill desks. Is this a good idea?

Well, it depends. FM Alexander would tell us that many of the problems we experience are not context-related (relevant only to a specific activity), but are the result of a deterioration in the general manner of use of ourselves. In other words, there’s a way we like to use our bodies – maybe tightening neck muscles, or raising shoulders, or jutting pelvis forwards – that we bring into every activity that we do. And in some of those activities that general way we like to use ourselves becomes problematic.

If this is the case (and Alexander Technique teachers down the decades have anecdotal evidence that this is true), then just swapping standing for sitting isn’t going to help, because we’re going to bring our poor manner of use along into the new activity. If we keep our shoulders raised all the time, we’re going to do that while we’re standing, and the knock-on effects of that through our whole system is going to generate achiness in just the same way it did while we were sitting. It might move or be subtly different in some way, but the cause is the same.

 

So the whole ‘sitting is bad for you’ campaign has two major flaws: the chair didn’t make us sit for prolonged periods, rather, we did; and there’s nothing to say that standing or using a treadmill desk is going to be any more beneficial in reducing overall harm to our systems.

What, then, should we do? I’m going to give you three top tips.

 1. Don’t sit still! Take breaks!

Chairs are just a tool, in the same way that a computer keyboard is just a tool, or a hammer is just a tool. We need to decide how to use them safely. So don’t sit still for long periods. Get up and walk around once an hour, even if it’s just to the water cooler and back. If you can’t trust yourself to remember, set a timer.

 

2. Think about your general use of yourself.

Do you hunch your shoulders? Do you jut your pelvis forwards, or crane your head forward on your neck? Do you permanently have one shoulder raised so your handbag won’t fall off… even if your handbag isn’t there? Start taking the time to observe yourself dispassionately, or see an Alexander Technique teacher for some advice.

 

3. Keep an open mind.

Read the articles. Check out the research. Make sure that you understand the issue before you do anything drastic like junk your furniture or spend thousands on a treadmill desk. Do what seems best for you in your circumstances, taking the research into account. You may well decide that the cardiovascular benefits of a treadmill desk are exactly what you need! But don’t be rushed into anything without thinking about it.

 

Maybe Hamlet had it right when he said “there’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Let’s stop blaming the tools, and start reasoning out how to use them effectively.

 

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.

Decision making and FOMO: what FM would say…

decision-making

Are you good at decision making, or are you plagued by those modern evils, Fear of Commitment and Fear of Missing Out? This post is about why decision making is a fundamental skill within Alexander Technique, and how you can do it better.

Decision making fail – leaning on the fence

A week or so ago I had the great pleasure of taking my family along to the ExCeL conference centre in London to see the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebration. It was a massive exhibition – tons of displays of costumes and props, lots of stalls selling things, and lots of demonstrations and theatre shows in a number of small spaces.

Many of these small spaces were defined within the large exhibition space by little fences. Inside each fence there were chairs and a stage. The fence was small, and though you could easily see over the top, staying outside to watch the demonstrations wasn’t exactly comfortable. The fence was rickety and wobbled every time it was touched, and the crowds bustled past constantly.

But that didn’t stop people. Every time I walked past one of these little theatre spaces, only about a third of the chairs inside was filled, but the fence was lined entirely by people leaning uncertainly against the rickety barrier and watching from the outside.

They didn’t want to commit. If you went inside you got a (more or less) comfy seat, but it also made it harder to leave if you didn’t like the show. And who was to say that there might not be a better show starting in the next space in just a few minutes?

So most people decided to hedge their bets, and spend an entire 40 minute show jammed against a wobbly barrier while the crowds brushed past.

Decision making and reasoning

Now, I admit that I’m not the world’s best decision maker. But I do know that standing around in a crowded passageway for 40 minutes just to ‘keep my options open’ is what FM Alexander would disparagingly call ‘unreasoned’. It stems from a fear of making the wrong choice, and a lingering worry that we might be missing out on something ‘better’. But really, does it really matter if there’s a better show than the one we’re watching, especially if it will take use half of the show time to push through the crowds to get to it?

If FM Alexander had worried about making the wrong choice about what experiments to make while he was trying to find the solution to his vocal troubles, we wouldn’t have the Alexander Technique today. FM made tons of mistakes. He went up conceptual blind alleys, tried wrong things, and even realised at one point that “all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.” (p.419)

But he never let his errors stop him. Indeed, more than once in Evolution of a Technique (the chapter in which he describes the creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique), he says clearly that he profited from the experiences he had from his mistakenness – the experience helped him to form new ideas and new experiments to try. (see p.418, p.424)

 Decision making – which side of the fence are you on?

Ultimately, there are very few decisions where the outcome is really that crucial. Most things can be changed, or improved upon. Most decisions will not be completely bad or wrong – we can learn from most things.

Therefore, don’t sit (or lean) on the fence.

Try that new restaurant or cafe.

Try that new watercolour brush technique.

Try playing that phrase with a different fingering pattern.

Try a different route home.

In the vast majority of circumstances, even if the choice turns out to be less than optimal, it won’t matter that much. You might end up with a lesser cup of coffee, or it might take you five minutes longer to get home. But if you don’t try, you might end up missing the best cup of coffee you ever tasted.

If you lean on the fence for too long, you’ll just end up with sore feet.

 

Re-evaluate: what to do if you venture too far out of your comfort zone

This is the sixth part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Week 1 was about why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. In week 2 we explored how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it. Week 3 was all about starting from where you are instead of waiting for perfect timing or conditions. Week 4 was about finding and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity. And last week we learned about the Trust Gap.
This week? What to do if you discovered you’ve ventured too far out of your comfort zone.

ID-10022496

I was never a brave person when I was young. Not physically brave. So there were lots of things that I have simply never tried. One of those was skating. My son had tried ice skating last year and really enjoyed it. So this winter, for my birthday, I decided that it would be fun for the family to go ice skating. My son would have a great time, and I would get to move out of my comfort zone and try something completely new.

But as the day approached, I began to realise that I was making a big mistake. I had a sense that I was moving a little too far outside of my comfort zone. I had a growing awareness that this activity was not one that felt comfortable for me.

One of my friends on Twitter, the lovely Paula White, had a similar thing happen to her recently. She had entered a triathlon, but discovered during the course of training that she had taken on a larger challenge than she was comfortable with. Training sessions, especially in the pool, were becoming anxiety-producing affairs. But Paula is intelligent, brave and resourceful. So she did the only sensible thing. She decided not to do the triathlon.

Sometimes we set ourselves goals, and decide to push our comfort zones. But sometimes we set those goals a little too ambitiously. Or once we start the process we’ve decided is best for achieving our goal, we discover that it involves many more steps than we thought at first. Or we may even discover that our desire to achieve our goal is eclipsed by other priorities.

In those instances, deciding to step away and re-evaluate is A Good Thing.

FM Alexander was very clear about what made for a successful pattern within education (and life):

Confidence is born of success, not of failure, and our processes in education and in the general art of living must be based upon principles which will enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence…*

In other words, when we are constructing a plan that takes us outside of our comfort zone, we should be aiming for a series of successful experiences that build confidence. If we are having a consistent series of unsuccessful experiences that leave us feeling anxious or unhappy, there’s something wrong. Either we need to change the way we’re going about the activity, or we need to re-adjust our expectations of what we want to achieve.

So if you’re feeling anxious about leaving your comfort zone, don’t be alarmed at first. But take note of the anxiety. If you are consistently finding that your experiences of the process to achieve your goals are filled with unhappiness and negativity, then maybe you need to re-evaluate.

Remember: there is no shame in quitting, just as there is positive benefit in being wrong and making mistakes. Knowing when to quit is just as important a skill as knowing when to continue. So if you feel as if you’re too far outside your comfort zone, stay “in communication with your reason,”** and make sure you re-evaluate. A little fear is good, but a whole lot? Maybe not so much.

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT edition, p. 425.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, op.cit., p.159.
Image by renjith krishnan, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Practice the little things! Hunt for hidden assumptions when leaving the comfort zone.

This is the fourth part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Week 1 was about why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. In week 2 we explored how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it. Last week was all about starting from where you are instead of waiting for perfect timing or conditions. This week is about finding hidden assumptions and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity.

 

This time I have for you a cautionary tale about the dangers of hidden assumptions, and the vital importance of remembering to practice the little things.

bottle

This is a water bottle. It is, in fact, the bottle that I received at the end of the Bristol 10k. Like all the other runners, I received a similar one during the race, about halfway through.

Some of them poured the water over their heads.

Most of them drank from the bottle.

I didn’t do either of those things. I did something far sillier.

You see, when I was training for the run, I never ran for very long. The longest time period was about an hour. And because I was training in my local park very close to my house, I never bothered to take a water bottle out with me. If I got thirsty on a longer run, I would just detour back home and grab a glass from the cupboard and pour myself some water.

But during the race, I wasn’t close to home. And I couldn’t detour for a nice, civilised glass. When I got the water bottle, I very quickly realised something.

I hadn’t practiced drinking while running.

Oops.

The water went over my cheeks. It went down my chin. It went down my front. It went pretty much anywhere except my mouth.

I looked like an idiot.

It had simply never occurred to me to practice drinking while running. But during the race it became clear that it was part of the race plan that I hadn’t thought about at all. I discovered that I had hidden assumptions about my ability to drink on the run. And I was wrong.

And it’s the little things that get you. When I was coaching a student recently for some practical exams, the student had thought about everything… Except for the order in which he was going to speak to the participants in the test, and how he was going to order his time in the simpler stations that formed part of the test procedure. It seems like a small thing, but it could be vitally important.

It is really tempting to concentrate on the big things, like the training runs. And they need attention. But the little things need attention too. Why?

1. Little things are part of a whole. Part of the way we handle big new experiences is to break them up into easier-to-handle pieces. Each piece is important. If we haven’t prepared all the small pieces, we haven’t fully prepared the whole. In fact, if we’ve neglected a little thing, it frequently indicates that we have hidden assumptions lurking, and they might have large consequences.

2. Little things can throw us off course. Especially if we’re doing something new, or trying to react to a difficult situation in a new way, we have enough to think about already just putting our newly formed plans into action. We don’t need surprises. And FM Alexander would suggest that if we leave an opening for ourselves to be caught off guard, we are more likely to depart from our reasoned plans and fall back to more instinctive unreasoned patterns of behaviour.*

So, more than a month after the race, I keep the water bottle. It is a reminder to me of how little things really do matter.

What little things do you need to take account of today?

 

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.417; p.433.

Warning! The Alexander Technique is not for everyone.

warning sign

It’s true: the Alexander Technique is not for everyone. Though I and probably most of my colleagues believe that anyone could benefit from this work, the truth of it is that it simply won’t suit everyone. And I think it’s really important that I don’t waste your time by trying to interest you in something that may not suit you. So before you pick up the phone or send that email and make an appointment, read through this checklist to make sure you’re doing the right thing.

Don’t come if:

  • You’re happy with things just as they are. Stay being happy, and don’t bother listening to someone like me. You may hear something that would cause you to change your thinking, and I would hate to be the cause of new-found discontentment. Although, my students often find that if they settle too long for something that is good, they risk missing out on something even better. Your choice.
  • You’re not prepared to take ownership of your difficulties. The idea of self-responsibility lies at the heart of the Alexander Technique. FM started his journey by wondering if he was doing something in the way he spoke that was the cause of his vocal problems. If you’re absolutely convinced that your mother / society / the evil school furniture did it to you, then I’m not sure I can help you.
  • You don’t want to think, you just want someone to do nice things to you. An Alexander Technique lesson involves hands-on work that often leaves the student feeling good, but that isn’t the point of the lesson. FM said that the centre and backbone of his theory and practice was that our (reasoning) conscious minds should be made more alive.* That means doing some thinking. If you just want to feel good, you’re in the wrong place.
  • You’re convinced that you’re right about most things, if not everything. A large part of my job is helping people re-examine their ideas and beliefs about what they need to do to go about their daily activities. If you’re not prepared for that, then don’t book a lesson!
  • You firmly believe that life is a process of constant, gradual deterioration. FM believed that it is possible to keep growing, changing and improving through life. In fact, that was his idea of happiness!** If you’re not interested in that sort of happiness, then save your money.

The Alexander Technique is a wonderful vehicle for making lasting, dramatic changes to your life. It has helped me personally in ways I could never have thought possible. I have seen my students transform their lives for the better. But you do have to be prepared to do a little thinking. You have to be prepared to work. And you have to be prepared to at least think about change.

Are you up for it?

 

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.39.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.382, 389.
Image by Idea go from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The importance of knowing what you’ve got

Do you know where your lungs are?

Seems like a simple question, doesn’t it? So take a moment. Put your hands on where you think your lungs are. I’ll wait for you.

Done?

I asked my acting students in Cardiff recently to show me where their lungs are. I have a class of fourteen teenagers. Thirteen of them put their hands halfway down their torso, just below their ribs. I asked them if they were sure, and they all agreed that they were.

Then I showed them a picture of where the lungs really are. It caused some consternation.

lungs lungs2

You see, they’d been trying to breathe down into their abdominal cavity. They’d been told by various drama and voice teachers that breathing down there was good, so they assumed that was where their lungs were located. They also assumed that any movement that happened in the chest must be bad, and some even admitted trying to stop it happening. Sadly, all they were doing was stopping the free movement of their body to allow their lungs to fill!

FM Alexander said that we all think and act according to the peculiarities of our psycho-physical make-up.* In other words, what we believe about our bodies and the world at large determines how we move and interact. If we don’t know the basics of what we’ve got bodywise and how it works, then we’re a bit like a runner starting a race off a handicap. We’ll be struggling from the very start.

So if you’re involved in a specialised activity like singing or playing tennis or skiing (or anything else), or if you’re finding a particular activity difficult, please do spend a bit of research time. Find out what muscles and joints you’ve got. Find out where your lungs are. Get some knowledge. Because once you know what you’ve got, you can begin to plan effectively how you’re going to use it.

* FM Alexander Consctructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat edition, p.293.
Image of the lungs taken from Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy, 10th ed., Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins, p.30.

“I can’t sing!” – the difference between CAN’T and DON’T, and why it matters

signpost

I recently had this exchange with a young student.

Student: I can’t sing.
Me: Really? Who told you that?
Student: Well, no one. But I can’t sing.
Me: What evidence do you have for that?
Student: I’ve heard myself.
Me: What, on a recording?
Student: [scornfully] No!
Me: So how have you heard yourself?
Student: As I’m singing.

At this point I took a little time to explain that this doesn’t really count, as you can’t hear yourself the way an audience hears you. All you can hear of yourself is a combination of internal resonance and whatever bounces back off the walls of wherever you are singing. Back to the dialogue.

Me: So have you heard yourself sing?
Student: No.
Me: So how do you know that you can’t?
Student: I guess I don’t.
Me: Do you sing at all?
Student: As little as possible.
Me: In that case, all we can say is that you don’t sing. Until you sing, we have no evidence that you can’t.

It sounds like I’m splitting hairs. But I’m not. It is a very common thing for me to have students say “I can’t” do something, when what they mean is that they tried it once and weren’t very good. So they decide not to try it ever again.

But this isn’t sufficient evidence to decide. It’s a bit like me picking up a tennis racquet for the first time and expecting to be able to play like Roger Federer. It’s possible, but the likelihood of it happening is vanishingly small. If I want to decide if I’m any good at tennis, I will need to spend some time learning the game and practising.

FM Alexander said that the centre and backbone of his work was that the conscious mind (the reasoning mind) must be quickened (made alive).* And one of the ways that we can do that is to be careful not to confuse ourselves with our language. If we say ‘can’t’ when we really mean ‘don’t’ or ‘haven’t tried’, we cut ourselves off from the possibility of experimenting and discovering whole new areas of skill and delight in our lives.

Where have you said “I can’t” where you really should be saying “I don’t yet” or “I haven’t tried”, and what would happen if you changed the way you spoke and thought?

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT Complete Edition, p.39.
Image by graur codrin from FreeDigitalPhotos.net