Stopping the snap: Alexander Technique and stress management

Santa by Matthew Mackerras

Christmas. It’s that time of year again. The best of times, the worst of times. So much fun, and yet sometimes so much stress too. D you ever find yourself reacting to circumstances in a way that isn’t very helpful or constructive? Have you ever resolved to do better next time, but when next time came, found your resolve wasn’t enough?

Frankly, how do we stop ourselves from reacting to stressful or difficult events/circumstances/people in a way that isn’t good?

This was exactly the situation FM Alexander found himself in. He realised that he needed to change the way he was reacting to the stimulus to speak, because his instinctive response was causing him to lose his voice.

He had a good think, and worked out a plan for how to open his mouth and use his voice more effectively. But when he tried to use it … He found he wasn’t using it. He was using his old instinctive way instead.

Resolve and planning? Check!

Success? No!

FM realised that he was having trouble implementing his plan because when he had a stimulus to speak, he went on auto-pilot, so to speak. It didn’t matter how good his new plan was, because it never got past his auto-pilot reaction.

And this is what happens to us, too. We have grand plans about how we are not going to snap at our pesky siblings (for example), but at the critical moment, we seem to react without thinking, and snappiness occurs.

So what did FM do? He realised that he needed to switch off the auto-pilot.

 

“If I was ever to be able to change my habitual use … it would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving the stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.” *

 

And that’s what he did. He refused to do anything immediately in response. He was giving himself the mental space to stop, turn off the auto-pilot, and decide what he actually wanted to do.

So at this time of great stimulus, this is what I’m asking you to do. If there is a stimulus that causes you trouble and grief, make the experience of receiving it, and refusing to do anything immediately in response. Give yourself the space to choose your reaction – or even if you want to react at all.

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT edition, p.424.

Simple Steps to Successful Music Practice with Alexander Technique

This post is about why, as a musician, I have had trouble with the concept of practice; about wise words on the subject from FM Alexander and a sports psychologist, and some steps I’m trialling to improve my practice technique.

musician2

I started playing recorder when I was six. I loved it right from the start, but I was very inconsistent in my practice regime. To be blunt, I didn’t have one. I got by on a bit of natural talent (a very little bit), luck, and the odd guilt-provoked practice binge session. It was not a great way to get by!

The discipline of practice has been fascinating to me ever since. How do other people do it? What are they actually doing? Do long hours in front of the music stand really make a difference in and of themselves? It was, therefore, with some excitement that I read an article by a sports/music psychologist Dr Noa Kageyama entitled ‘How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?’ What fascinated me was that Dr Kageyama took some pains to tease out exactly what it is that we are doing when we practice.

You will probably laugh when I tell you that it was a major realisation to me the day I realised that practice is actually a skill. It is something that needs to be done systematically and with a degree of reasoning and planning to be successful.

This is revelatory because I wasn’t taught that way. As a child learning how to play, I was told to practice, but wasn’t taught how to do it. It was just something that you did (or in my case, did as little as I could get away with!) Therefore I did it ineffectually.

In The Use of the Self, FM Alexander says that ‘willing to do’ something is all very well, but if you are directing your energy in the wrong direction, applying exertion and willpower will only speed you further along the wrong path.*

This was certainly the case with me. Because I didn’t know how to practice, I made fundamental errors, like going back to the beginning of a piece every time I made a mistake. The result was that I knew the beginnings of my music really well, but not the endings! Playing also became a stressful activity, because the playing of the music would get harder and harder and more stressful as I went along. It is very stressful beginning a piece of music when you don’t know if you are going to be able to make it through to the end.

 

If you practice poorly or with little strategy, you are likely to store up problems for yourself in the long run.

The solution? Teach people how to practice.

This certainly wasn’t done when I was a kid. Based on my experiences of my son’s music lessons, I am not convinced the situation has changed much. I don’t have any information, sadly, on the current state of pedagogy for childhood music education, and what it has to say about the issue of practice. (If you know anything, PLEASE contact me!) But from my reading so far, I can give these tips for the adults. They’re things that I’m experimenting with at the moment.

1.Goals. Have a goal for each practice session.

2. Keep it short. Dame Nellie Melba said beginning singers should only spend 10 minutes actually singing at any one time. I think that is really good advice for any musician who is grappling with the concept of how to practice. Even 10 minutes can be a long time to devote one’s whole mind to a task.

3. Practice without the instrument. Look at the music. Listen to other people play it. Clap the rhythms. Write out the words. Say them as poetry. Experiment!

4.  Do it regularly. Do some every day. Equally, don’t beat yourself up if there is a day where you can’t. Julia Cameron suggests making a deal with yourself to do a certain number of days out of the week. I try for 5 days out of seven.

Do you have any other tips? Tell me about them!

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.440.
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