How to practice Alexander Technique is a question high on the list of any beginning student. What should I do? Are there exercises I can do? How long should I be thinking about it each day?
Today I want to demystify the concept of how to practice. Let’s look at how a musician might go about it, and see what ideas we can draw out of the musician’s experience of how to practice.
Imagine a small group music lesson with three young students. It doesn’t matter what instrument; we’ll imagine it’s violin. How do they get better? By practice! But each of them has a different approach to how to practice, and they aren’t all effective.
One goes to the lesson, then goes home and puts his violin in his cupboard. He doesn’t think about it again until just before the next lesson. He then does an hour or two of panicked practice.
The next student practices every day for about an hour. He runs through his pieces all the way through every time. If he makes a mistake, he stops and goes back to the beginning of the piece. At lessons, he never seems to have fixed the places the teacher helped him with in the previous lesson.
The final student practices most days, some days for half an hour, some days only for a few minutes. He’ll pick a piece, play it through to remember which bits are sounding dodgy, and then work on one dodgy bit. When he’s fixed it, he puts his violin away and finds something else to do.
Which student improves fastest?
Which student are you?
How to practice is about quality.
Quality of practice, not quantity, is the key. It doesn’t matter how many times you do an activity (like play a piece of music) if you’re doing it wrongly. And consistency of practice is very important. There’s a growing body of evidence behind what already seemed like common sense: that we retain information better when we work on it regularly.*
The other element that FM Alexander would add to the mix is what sportsmen call mental practice. When he was trying to solve the vocal troubles that threatened his career, FM would practice his new protocols for movement very many times “without attempting to do them.” This ensured that when he did attempt to carry them out, he had a good knowledge of the process he wanted to follow.**
How to practice – the steps.
- Find a time that suits.
- Find an activity that suits.
- Organise yourself to practice mindfully – actually thinking about what you are doing. If you can, pick for yourself a small, achievable goal to aim for.
- Find time to think about how to do the activity when you aren’t doing it.
- Do it for a few minutes.
- If you reach your mini-goal, have a little celebration.
- And – this is optional, but recommended – let someone know what it is you’re working on, so that they can ask you about it. Accountability really helps.
That’s the Activate You plan for how to practice Alexander Technique. Or, indeed, just about anything. Want to give it a try? Email me and let me know what you’re working on, and I’ll give you any help I can – even if it’s just sending an occasional message to make sure you’re still working!
And don’t forget to have fun!
*I recommend Barbara Oakley’s book A Mind for Numbers (Penguin 2014) for a detailed, lively and very practical description of the research and how to use the findings to improve one’s ability to learn.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, 1985, p.41.