Change to a more constructive performance mindset with one word

Different coloured brains to visualise changing to a more constructive performance mindset.

Can you change from a destructive performance mindset to something more beneficial with just a single word? Is it too good to be true? Put bluntly: is Jen indulging in click bait headlines?

Actually, I’m not. I firmly believe that it is possible to change your mode of thinking away from a performance mindset that is destructive using just one little word. But before I tell you what it is, I want to give a little background on why it works.

Psychophysical unity and performance mindset

Because we are a psychophysical unity, we enact the ideas that we have about ourselves and our abilities physically. And sometimes we may have no real notion of how far the implications of our belief mind extend, until we examine the end result of one of our ideas. FM Alexander gives the example of a student who had made the decision to avoid disagreeable sensations from activities by engaging her mind with pleasant thoughts. Put simply, she avoided putting her whole mind towards anything difficult or taxing, and instead did something akin to daydreaming to avoid any sensation of discomfort. The same student then wondered why it was that she had starting to find it difficult to keep her mind engaged while reading.

I showed her how she had been cultivating a most harmful mental condition, which made concentration on those duties of life which pleased her appear as a necessity. She had been constructing a secret chamber in her mind, as harmful to her general well-being as an undiagnosed tumour might have been to her physical welfare. [1]

Words matter

So the ideas that we have about what we do can have far-reaching consequences. And so often, our ideas can be negative; psychotherapist Philippa Perry in her book How to Stay Sane describes our internal dialogue as being to some degree “toxic chatter” that is loaded with 

hateful thoughts about ourselves and others; unconstructive self-scoldings; pointless pessimism. [2] 

Most of the time we don’t notice the toxic thoughts, and they don’t have a massive impact upon what we are doing. But in a high-stakes situation or a high-stress environment – like a performance – our unhelpful thoughts are likely to have a disproportionate negative impact upon our psychophysical systems.

I see this every time an actor apologises before they run through an audition monologue in class, or a student says ‘I hope I get this right’ before they attempt getting out of a chair. They are getting their apologies in early before a poor performance. And why do they need to do this? Because they assume that a poor performance is likely to occur. They have envisioned it! That is to say, they have constructed for themselves a performance mindset that is highly likely to result in poor performance.

One word that changes everything

The word that changes everything is one I learned in my university theatre training: the word if. Theatre director and acting system creator Constantin Stanislavski used the word ‘if’ as a foundational part of his acting system because it lifted his actors out of actuality and “I to the realm of imagination”:

With this special quality of if … nobody obliged you to believe or not believe anything. Everything is clear, honest and above-board. You are given a question, and you are expected to answer it sincerely and definitely. [3]

Recently I was working with a violinist, who was struggling in the preparations for an upcoming performance. When the person played for me, their intonation was off, their vibrato uncertain. I asked the violinist what they thought of themselves as a musician. “Well, I don’t think I’m any good,” the violinist replied. 

This made me feel very sad. I decided to call on my theatre training and invoke the power of if. I told the violinist I wasn’t going to try to change their belief, but just to ask them to play a little game with me. They agreed, so I continued. “What would it be like,” I asked, “if you really were a good player?”

The violinist’s eyes sparkled, and they played again. It sounded completely different: good intonation, clear tone, strong and appropriate vibrato. It was the clearest example I have ever seen of how just one little word can completely change a person’s mindset, by allowing them to play with thinking differently.

Over to you

Is there something that you believe that isn’t helping you? Do you have a performance mindset that you know holds you back when you go to play or present? Don’t bother trying to believe something different – that sounds like a lot of work and too much stress when you’re close to performance time. Instead, why not harness the power of your imagination? What would it be like if you were confident/capable/great at presenting/totally in control of your material? Imagine what that would be like, and then go out and play. If nothing else, you’ll have given yourself a moment of relaxation instead of stress just before your gig. But you may well surprise yourself with the power of that one little word.

Give it a try.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, New York, Irdeat, 1997, p.67.

[2] Perry, P., How to Stay Sane, London, Macmillan, 2012, p.26.

[3] Stanislavski, C., An Actor Prepares, trans. E.R. Hapgood, London, Methoden, 1988, pp. 46-47. Author’s italics.

Breath control: ideas for breathing better

Ah, the breath.

A dandelion clock like this one is a great opportunity to play with an out breath!

Breathing is the subject of countless blogs and articles. It is a major topic within yoga, pilates, mindfulness, and goodness knows how many other forms of exercise and bodywork. And why? For the simple reason that so many of us feel we don’t do it very well. And if we feel that our breathing is problematic in ordinary daily life, then it is likely our worries will be amplified (quite literally!) when we put the mouthpiece of an instrument between our lips, or we start to sing or act, or even give a presentation at work.

We need to get to the bottom of our more general issues around breathing. Therefore, today I am going to give you a whistle stop tour of your respiratory system, because it is my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher that we tend to have a lot of inaccurate ideas about what it is and how it works.

Do you know where you breathe?

It sounds like a silly question, but it’s something that is actually really important. Pretty much everyone knows that the air we breathe in goes into our lungs, but after that, all knowledge is up for grabs! Some people lift their shoulders up to their ears when they take a breath. Others try to ‘breathe into their belly’. Some suck their tummy inwards when they breathe (I’ve heard singers describe this as ‘reverse breathing’). But what is anatomically most appropriate?

It’s an important issue, and can cause a lot of issues around unintentional vibrato. So take a second, and put your hands where you think your lungs are.

Did you put them on your chest?

Lungs are surprisingly large: they start just under the collarbone, and go all the way down to the base of the ribs. They have a truly massive surface area, because we need it to be able to hold all the air we would need to take part in serious physical exertion (or, indeed, playing a contrabass recorder). 

Lungs and shoulders

If we think of the lungs as massive sacks for the moment, it seems reasonable that, if the sacks are filling with air, that there would be an expansion involving the ribs and the back. And seeing as the shoulder structures rest over the top of the ribs, it only seems fair that there should be a little accessory motion in the shoulders, too. Note that I say ‘accessory motion’ – raising your shoulders to your ears doesn’t really help you get any more air in your lungs. We don’t end to deliberately lift them, but we shouldn’t be keeping them absolutely still, either.

Diaphragm and belly

The diaphragm is a muscle that you may have head of, and it has an important function in the breathing process. It is the diaphragm contracting downwards that causes the change in pressure in the pleural cavity that starts the process of breathing in. Now, when the diaphragm contracts downwards, it runs into the organs beneath it – primarily the digestive organs. These don’t like being squished, and need to move in order to avoid it. They can’t go downwards, because there’s pelvis in the way, and can’t go backwards because the spine is in the way. So they move outwards as we breathe in – or should do, in a normal breathing pattern.

(If you want to watch a video explaining the system, try this one from Crash Course. The mechanics of lungs and diaphragm are about 5 minutes in)

Breathing control

The trick with breathing is that it is both a hard-wired system (try not breathing, and see what your body does) AND voluntary. That is to say, we can choose to a large degree when and how we breathe. This is good, because it means that we’re able to talk and play musical instruments! But it also means we can impose ideas and beliefs that can really impede the normal action of the respiratory system. Anyone who has done any classical dance training, for example, probably won’t be comfortable with allowing their belly to move outwards, because it conflicts with good form in classical dance. Or if you’re like some of my classical singing Alexander Technique students, you’ve been told so many times that shoulders should not move while breathing that you actively hold them down!

Rediscover your breath

One of the best ways I know to rediscover the whole respiratory system, after doing a bit of research looking at anatomy books and YouTube videos, is to lie down and feel what you do when you breathe. Why lying down? Simply that you’ll get feedback from the floor as to what parts of you are moving (or not), and you may be able to notice changes a little more easily. There’s nothing more mysterious about it than that.

I would suggest lying on your back on the floor, with your feet flat and your knees pointing towards the ceiling. You can put some padding under your head if you like. And breathe. Notice what happens in your chest, shoulders and back. Notice what your belly does. Once you’ve started to acquaint yourself with your breathing patterns, start experimenting with allowing movement through your ribs, back and abdominal region as you breathe in and out.

Jen on the floor investigating her breath control.

It is tempting, too, to focus solely on breathing in. I would strongly recommend that you spend just as much time noticing what happens as you breathe out. Notice which muscles are working, and which ones relax. Experiment with just how much you can get out of your own way and allow your system to do the work for you.

Once you’ve investigated your own breathing, and experimented with what your system does if you leave it alone, you can start to branch out, and notice, for example, what you do in order to breathe in, or to speak. But for now, just enjoy experimenting with your respiratory system, and let me know if you discover anything interesting.

Image of dandelion courtesy of Sivan_Zamir at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image of Jen by Timothy Lanfear.

Whole body vs separate parts : how choosing the right concept changes everything

A cut up apple - whole body or separate parts?

Have your ever seen someone play music, or take part in a sport, and felt as if they were needlessly throwing all of themselves into the activity? Or perhaps you’ve seen (or been) the person who is obsessed with the action of one particular part of the body – possibly because it hurts – to the exclusion of all else. I see both things a lot with the musicians that I work with: the trombone player who uses absolutely every part of her body to move the slide; the pianist who is obsessed with the action of his right thumb.

Both of these characteristics – the ‘kitchen sink’ approach and the ‘laser focus’ on one particular area – stem from correct ideas about the human body, but in both cases they have been taken to unhelpful extremes. So how are we whole, and how are we separate? And how can we change our ideas to think more helpfully about our physical structure?

Body as whole

On the one hand, we are a psycho-physical unity. As FM Alexander said,

it is impossible to separate ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ processes in any form of human activity.[1]

This means that everything is connected – mind and body. And if we decide to change the way we are using one part of our body, because our body is a whole system, everything else must necessarily change around it. This means that taking the body as a whole system is likely to effect better and more effective changes than looking at specifics.

Each request from his teacher to do something, and each injunction not to do something else, means a building-up of a series of specific psycho-physical acts towards the given “end,” namely, learning to write. This means that although the “end” may be gained, the result as a whole will not be as satisfactory as it might be, for nothing will have been done in the way of re-education on a general basis…[2]

Here’s an example of this in practice. A student can come to me with an issue involving arms and hands (when playing a trombone or a saxophone, for example); I work to help them stop muscular tension in their neck and back by perhaps questioning their concept of what they need to do to breathe, or whether they need to use neck muscles to think, and the arm problem vanishes. This is very cool, and looks a little like magic, but is based on the physiologic truth that a change in the musculoskeletal relationships in one part of the body will have ripple effects everywhere else.

Body as separate parts

But things are also separate, and often, like Alexander, I see people who are using themselves in such a way that their whole body is involved in an unhelpful pattern of tension. FM, for example, noticed this in some of his clients who came for help with speech defects:

When he spoke, I also noticed a wrong use of his tongue and lips and certain defects in the use of his head and neck, involving undue depression of the larynx and undue tension of the face and neck muscles. I then pointed out to him that his stutter was not an isolated symptom of wrong use confined to the organs of speech, but that it was associated with other symptoms of wrong use and functioning in other parts of his organism… I went on to explain that … he “stuttered” with many other different parts of his body besides his tongue and lips. [3]

Sometimes I work with musicians who want to use their whole bodies to play their instruments. For example, a trumpet player might use her whole body to raise the instrument up to play, bending backwards with her spine, rather than simply using her arms. If I work with the trumpeter and help her to separate her arms (appendicular structure) from her spine (axial structure) then raising the instrument becomes much easier.

And both things are true. They may look a bit contradictory, but they’re not – they just function on different levels. And we can take advantage of both ideas in order to improve how we’re performing.

Questions to ask yourself.

So if you’re practising, for example, you could ask yourself these questions:

Kitchen sink scenario: Am I using everything to carry out this activity? Could I think a little more about things being separate?

Laser focus scenario: am I thinking of myself too separately, or am I concentrating on separate parts and forgetting the rest of my body?

The extra credit challenge: can I manage to think of things being separate AND hold the idea of being a whole person, all at the same time?

You may find that your ability to play your instrument without crunching into the music stand, or to use a laptop without being sucked into the screen, improves if you play with these ideas. Let me know.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.21.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.233.

[3] Alexander, The Use of the Self, p.70.

Image courtesy of punsaya at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mind your language use: the way you describe a thing changes it.

Has it ever occurred to you how important language use is to the way we describe the world? The words we use to describe a phenomenon don’t only describe it; in some sense, they also author it. The word usage gives the listener a sense of what you think about the phenomenon (and also what they should think about it). In a very real sense, the way we describe something creates it – it makes it in our psycho-physical image.

This being so, we can sometimes create problems for ourselves by our language use. We can use unhelpful word choices that skew our ability to perceive something for what it really is.

I want to give you two examples of words that I’ve heard to describe physical movement recently, and I want to contrast them with a different word to describe the same physical action. I want you to see how we can give away responsibility for our flaws by the language we use, and that by changing the words we can take back ownership; if we reclaim ownership of our problems, we also reclaim control of the solution.

Collapse

Suppose a student says to me that she ‘collapses’ in the mid-torso when she sits. What sense does this give? What other things ‘collapse’? The language used makes me think of buildings, or of towers of children’s building blocks. These things can collapse – if the underlying structure isn’t strong, or if a force acts upon it in the right way, then the tower falls.

But is the human torso really like that?

Flop

What if my student said that she ‘flops’ at a point in her mid-torso. Where else do you hear the word ‘flop’? I think of flopping onto a bed or into a sofa. Again, there’s this sense of things falling, of being acted upon by gravity.

In both cases, there is a sense of a lack of a controlling force. A tower of bricks doesn’t have a guiding intelligence. When I flop into bed, I am so tired I am barely awake – there’s very little guiding intelligence going on there, either!

Crunch

But what if my student decided to describe the folding in her mid-torso as a ‘crunch’? Does that make a difference?

Crunched up paper. Crunch is a better term for what happens to muscles than flop. Language use is important.

To my mind, yes. When I hear ‘crunch’, I think of two things. First of all, I think of the act of squeezing a piece of paper into a ball. The other thing that I think of is abdominal crunches – the exercise that trainers get you to do to improve the tone of your abdominal muscles.

You’ll notice that both of these images involve physical work, and they both involve something being contracted. The paper is made to contract into a ball; the abdominal muscles contract because they are working.

If my student describes her mid-torso phenomenon as a ‘crunch’, she is using a word that implies physical effort, and implies a controlling force. The controlling force can decide not to crunch the paper or the abdominal muscle; the controlling force (the student’s brain) can decide not to ‘crunch’ her mid-torso. Not only is this description more active and take more responsibility for the action, it also fits better with what is actually happening anatomically.

Examine your language use

So today I invite you to examine your language use. What language do you use to describe your physical movements? Is it helpful language, and does it have a basis in fact/anatomy? Can you change the words you use so that you have a greater sense of control over the physical movement you are describing?

Learning to look at what we think, as we think it, is a tremendous skill. You may well find that you have more control over the quality and efficiency of the way you move than you previously thought.

Image courtesy of nunawwoofy at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What’s right with being wrong?

Do you have a problematic relationship with being wrong?

Being wrong and being right - a cross and a tick - both are essential to growth and change

It’s a really common thing. A lot of my students will confess to finding the whole idea of ‘being wrong’ really difficult. They all come from a school system that prioritises being right, and a prevailing culture that fetishises perfection in all forms (the obsession with physical perfection is the most obvious and disturbing example, but is only one part of the phenomenon).[1] Some are still within that school system, and have to exist within the structures that they suspect aren’t helping them.

It manifests when they aren’t keen to play their musical instrument in front of a group (or even me), even though they’ve asked for the lesson because they want help. They don’t want to be seen to do things incorrectly or poorly, and feel apprehensive. Sometimes students don’t even have a lesson at all because they are too afraid of being seen to ‘stuff up’. Getting things wrong is vulnerable, and therefore challenging.

So why do I want us all to experiment with being wrong a little more often? What’s wrong with always wanting to be right?

FM Alexander – expert at being wrong

One of the strands that runs through FM’s account of his creation of his work is his constant experimentation. He doesn’t refer to it directly, but it is pretty clear that he must have gotten a lot of things wrong! The work is peppered with time references (after many weeks; after some time; after many months) and statements like this one:

when the time came for me to apply what I had learned to my reciting, and I had tried to do what I ought to do, I had failed. Obviously, then, my next step was to find out at what point in my “doing” I had gone wrong.

There was nothing for it but to persevere, and I practised patiently month after month, as I had been doing hitherto, with varying experiences of success and failure, but without much enlightenment. In time, however, I profited by these experiences…[2]

Fear of being wrong is a category mistake. 

But what if our love of being right is a learned behaviour? What if it’s a completely reasonable desire within a specific sphere of activity, and we’ve just misapplied it to most of our activities in our lives?

We get used to being taught specific things we need to remember and regurgitate on test papers – being right – and then transfer that experience into our other activities. Music teachers I know tell me that they sometimes have students who are afraid of playing anything other than a very ‘safe’ interpretation of a piece – or don’t even like playing at all – because they don’t want to do the ‘wrong’ thing. They want the teacher to tell them the ‘right’ thing, and then copy it.

But when you think about it, if you look across the whole of a person’s life, remembering STUFF for tests and then quoting it back on the papers is a very small and specific category of activity that isn’t repeated very often anywhere else. But to a school student – to an impressionable mind at a critical point in the development of understanding about the world – it forms the large part of every day. Small wonder we most of us hold to it so firmly!

My music teacher friends will tell you that a student who wants to be right is afraid of doing the wrong thing. Someone who is afraid is less likely to take risks, likely to be less creative, and suffer more when the inevitable happens and they do perform sub-optimally.

What did you fail at this week?

As adults we have an opportunity to stop this cycle, both with ourselves and with the young people we know. Because adults were once children who grew up in that ‘right is right’ mindset, they often unthinkingly perpetuate it with the children with whom they are in contact. So it was refreshing to read an article about being wrong, and come across this quote:

Spanx CEO Sara Blakely grew up with her father asking her, ‘What did you fail at this week?’ If by the end of the week she hadn’t failed, she wasn’t trying hard enough. She said she learned that being wrong leads you to the next best thing.[3]

This family developed a total shift of mindset. Being wrong became a benchmark of learning, rather than something to be feared. Imagine what you could achieve if you copied that change of mindset. Imagine how different the world could be if we all copied it?!

Being wrong isn’t quite enough

It’s a good idea to ask questions about what we’ve attempted, and to be a bit analytical about things. We do this so that we can avoid emotional backlash, and so that we don’t get stuck with muttering ‘I was wrong. Huh.’ Think of it as a bit like troubleshooting to work out where a problem is. When I was trying to fix my laptop this week, I went through a process of asking questions and ruling out alternatives, so that I could narrow my focus down to the thing that was causing the trouble.

  • How was I wrong – was all of my thinking wrong, or just a part?
  • Did I actually do what I intended to do?
  • Was my reasoning faulty, or did I not analyse the context and conditions well enough?
  • What did I miss?
  • What assumptions did I make that I probably shouldn’t have?

If you take an analytical approach like this, you give yourself a bit of emotional distance, and the opportunity to learn from what you’ve done – both the good and the bad. If you’re learning, you’re benefiting. And if that’s true, you’re almost certainly improving.

[1] See this article for an example: https://www.thisisinsider.com/selfie-harm-photo-series-rankin-asks-teens-to-edit-photos-until-social-media-ready-2019-2, accessed 7 February 2019.

[2] Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, Orion, London, 2001, p.32.

[3] https://www.fastcompany.com/90292670/why-its-good-for-you-to-be-wrong, accessed 3 February 2019.

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big questions: Will I ever be able to do Alexander Technique without a teacher?

when will I be able to do Alexander Technique can feel like 'how long is a piece of string' - but the variables are more defined! Picture of string.

There are certain questions I get asked a lot as an Alexander Technique teacher. This one is a variation on the ‘how long does it take to learn Alexander Technique’ question, or the ‘when will I get better’ question. But it has a slightly different flavour, because the others seem to assume that there’s an end point – a point at which the skill has been totally learned and the problem that caused the student to come to lessons is completely better.

I could write a whole article on the logical fallacy behind that particular notion (and probably will), but today I want to focus on the follow-on question: when will I be able to do Alexander Technique without a teacher?

It’s a follow-on question because it has an extra degree of sophistication to it – it puts Alexander Technique into the same bracket as music or singing lessons. We are mostly quite comfortable with the idea that a musical instrument is a skill that is likely to benefit from professional input regularly for quite a while, and that even people who are very skilled still consider lessons important to their development.  Being skilled at something doesn’t mean that you might not benefit from some guidance, at least occasionally!

But what does a student mean when they ask how long it will take to do Alexander Technique without a teacher? If we take the Alexander Technique as a toolkit of principles and strategies for changing the way you move and think, then doing it yourself would involve being able to access the toolkit and pick the right tool for each circumstance or activity.

Can a student learn to do this? Absolutely, yes.

Doing it for yourself

Being able to ‘do Alexander Technique’ for yourself without the aid of a teacher was in fact Alexander’s greatest goal:

“I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself. My place in the present economy is due to a misunderstanding of the causes of our present physical disability, and when this disability is finally eliminated the specialized practitioner will have no place, no uses.” [1]

Alexander wanted us to be able to use our reasoning intelligence for our own benefit. He wanted us to be able to reason our way through any situation or activity we might find ourselves in, so that we can acquit ourselves with efficiency and grace.

Doing it for yourself – in action!

And this is completely possible. The other day I went out for a run with my teenage son. Midway through the run he commented that he’d realised that he lifts his shoulders up to his ears when he runs, and that he was thinking about letting them hang. I didn’t even get the chance to ask how that was working; he carried on to say that it felt really weird and he wanted to lift them back up again, but that running was suddenly a lot easier. He then cheekily commented that he doesn’t need an Alexander teacher, and sprinted off!

Of course, my son has spent all of his life living around Alexander Technique ideas, so it is hardly surprising that he would need very few formal lessons, but equally, he has clearly reached a stage where is is quite capable of ‘doing the Alexander Technique’ for himself! But what does it take, if you’re not living 24/7 with me?

  • Preparedness to work. You need to be ready to do a bit of thinking.
  • Willingness to fail. Not every bit of reasoning you do is going to be perfect first time around! The essence of creativity is getting stuff wrong and learning from it.
  • Practice. You’ll need to do some.
  • Learning the tools. This is the key bit. You can do this by reading Alexander’s books, or books by others, or by watching stuff on YouTube. You could download my audio series that talks you through some of the basic ideas; you could have lessons. You could do a mixture of all of these.

And the final thing? 

Time. Take time over it. Just as my son didn’t learn to play complex Tarrega pieces on his guitar in a day or a month, so too learning the complexities behind the principles of the Alexander Technique might take a little time. You’ll have enough in a very short while to get you started; everything else is refining your skills. And that’s where the fun starts.

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat 1997, p. 5

Photo by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Get analysing: Why positive thinking isn’t going to help you improve, and the surprising thing that actually will

This brain has ditched positive thinking for reasoning and mental practice

It being the end of January as I write this, you’ve probably already had your fill of ‘New Year, New You’ style posts and articles extolling the virtues of total life changes and positive thinking. So I’m not going to write one – you’d only be bored! Instead, I’m going to do the opposite, and tell you to ditch the positive thinking for something far more effective.

Event-simulation vs positive thinking

It turns out that just trying to be positive and visualise nice and happy outcomes doesn’t actually have very much impact upon a person’s ability or motivation to solve the problems that they’re facing. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath recount an experiment that was done with a group of UCLA students. The students were divided into three groups. All groups were asked to think about a problem that was causing them stress, and all were given some basic instruction on problem solving.

The control group was sent home at this point. The second group, the ‘event-simulation’ group, were asked to visualise how the problem had unfolded. They had to simulate in their mind each step that led to the problem that they were now facing, remembering as far as possible what they had said and done. The third group, the ‘outcome-simulation’ group, were told to visualise how they would feel when the problem was solved. Groups 2 and 3 were then sent home with instructions to repeat the simulation for 5 minutes each day.

After a week, the groups were invited back to the lab in order to see which students had fared best in coping with their problems. The event simulation group members felt more positive about their problems; they had taken more specific actions to solve their problems; they had sought more outside help; they reported feeling like they had learned from the experience.[1]

FM Alexander – positive action, not positive thinking

What fascinated me when I read about this experiment was how much it reminded me of the process that FM Alexander engaged in when he began investigating the causes of the vocal problems that threatened his career. He didn’t just blindly trust the doctor, and he didn’t try to ‘feel more positive’ about getting better. Rather, he asked a fundamental question –

“is it not fair … to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?”[2]

– went back to his study and thought really hard about exactly when he experienced the vocal difficulties. He made observations, made a hypothesis, and tested it. He didn’t sit around – he thought and then he acted.

We can all do this. We can be like the UCLA students and think back to when the problem we’re experiencing first appeared. We can trace our way through the different actions that affected it. And if we do this, we’ve got solid evidence on which to base our hypotheses and go about finding solutions.

Opening questions we can ask ourselves:

  • Is it something that I’m doing in the way I’m going about things that causes the problem?
  • When did it first appear?
  • Does it get worse at specific times?
  • Does it get better at specific times?
  • Do I do a little bit of it all the time, or is it something that is completely specific to one activity or context?

I’m sure you can think of other questions that might be useful!

So, at the risk of sounding like a grump, try ditching positive thinking and replace it with ‘event-simulation’ thinking instead. And let me know what you discover.

[1], Heath, C. & Heath, D., Made to Stick, London, Random House, 2007, pp.210-211.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 2001, p.25. Author’s italics.

Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Balance, belief and follow-through: what can musicians learn from Roger Federer?

Even as news broke of Andy Murray’s imminent departure from men’s tennis, another article in the Guardian caught my eye: a piece on Roger Federer[1]. Though not a massive tennis fan, I’ve come to admire Federer and frequently use him as an example of stunningly graceful movement in my Alexander Technique classes. But what can we as musicians learn from Roger Federer? What can we take from his approach to tennis and apply to our own endeavours?

Balance and efficiency of movement

Journalists have been remarking on the beauty of Federer’s play since early in his career – David Foster Wallace’s seminal article on Federer ‘as Religious Experience’ was written in 2006 and still feels current. Here is Wallace on Federer:

Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to… His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game … All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game.[2]

What do I as an Alexander Technique teacher like about watching Federer? If you look at photos of him, or watch him play on TV, he never seems off balance. There is an efficiency of movement – he doesn’t use more energy than necessary, and he rarely seems to place muscular effort into anything that would detract from his shot. Even at extreme levels of exertion one never feels that his energies are being misdirected or overdone. This is Federer himself on his style of play:

“maybe it’s also the way I play tennis, smoother than the other guys. It maybe looks that way [but] I work extremely hard in the matches as well. It just doesn’t come across so much.”[3]

I think this is directly transferrable to music. As we play, we could make it a guiding principle to make our physical movements suitable to the task at hand – neither too much, nor poorly directed. I’m not suggesting that we try to limit our movement or our energies; rather that, like Federer, if the situation demands exertion and exuberance, that we fulfil those demands in the service of our musical goals. I would love to feel at the end of a recital that I had carried out what was necessary to make the music speak, and no extra!

Rhythm, routine, and fun

Federer has an unchanging routine to determine when he changes his racquets during the match, and a little ritual set up with the ball boys and girls when the new one is unwrapped. He is known to be meticulous about taking off his jacket before the match and putting it over the back of his chair, smoothing away any creases. These things may give us aesthetic pleasure as spectators, but why might he do them? One answer might be, ‘control of environment’. By having a set plan over when he changes racquet (and how it is done) he doesn’t need to think about it, leaving him more mental space (working memory) to devote to thinking about the game.

But he also likes to allow himself moments of creativity and fun. Journalist Tim Lewis:

it was Mats Wilander, the seven-time grand slam winner from Sweden, who noted that to really understand Roger Federer you have to watch him between the points. Wilander especially enjoys how Federer returns a ball to the ball boys after a missed first serve or the end of the rally. It’s never a simple, utilitarian interaction: instead, he’ll curate a viciously kinking drop shot that bounces into their hands or a razored slice that makes a satisfying thwock into the canvas behind the court. [4]

The idea of creating routines and patterns of behaviour is a sensible one, as it can help free up the mind before performing and may also have a beneficial effect against stage fright. It does this by removing the necessity of the performer having to use vital mental energy deciding how to prepare themselves, their instrument and music for the performance; it also reduces the risk of forgetting something, thereby lowering the general ‘irritability’ of the performer’s systems.

I also like, though, the inclusion of creativity and fun within Federer’s routine structure. Perhaps some playfulness over warming up, or while tuning between movements/pieces may help to keep a sense of freshness and presence? I’ll leave it up to you to work out how adding some creativity might work for you!

Follow-through

A friend on Twitter remarked that one of the noticeable elements of Federer’s play is his follow-through – it is graceful and flowing, and very much part of his shot. This is possibly where Federer most neatly exemplifies a key Alexander Technique principle, which I and some of my colleagues label ‘additive thinking’.[5]

FM Alexander wanted us to reason out strategies (routes of travel, or protocols) for each activity we undertake. But so often it becomes easy to look at the elements of the protocol one has designed and view them as a kind of checklist. The tennis checklist, simplified hugely, might read:

  • pull racquet back
  • hit ball
  • follow through

But if one were to use these three steps in practice as a checklist, one would end up with a very jerky and unconnected set of movements – quite the opposite of the easy and ‘holistic’ quality we are trying to attain. What FM Alexander wanted instead, and what Federer does brilliantly, is for the player to think of each thing additively at all moments of the shot. In other words, even as one is preparing for the shot, one is also thinking of the follow-through, and vice versa. This ensures that every element of the protocol is retained in mind as the protocol is followed. And what Federer also does brilliantly is to use the follow-through from one shot as the preparatory conditions for the next shot.

How would this function in music? A pianist, for example, would not think of single notes individually, but rather think about each note and each finger movement as encompassing each note in the phrase. The way each note ends is the preparatory state for the next note (or rest, or silence).

Self-belief

Federer exhibits a solid belief in his own abilities; he believes that he can win. And this belief isn’t only visible while he’s winning. Journalist Tim Lewis notes that this belief stuck with him even in the period where he was losing matches and falling down the rankings:

When he spoke about the brick walls he was coming up against, Federer’s response was stoic, hubristic: he was playing well, he’d tell us, he could beat any player on his day. There was something deluded about his obstinacy, and it made me both desperately want him to change, but also wish that he would stay the same. [6]

Federer, like other great sportspeople, is prepared to investigate change: he did change his preferred racquet size. But his belief in his training and ability is paramount:

The core difference between Federer and his rivals is his unshakeable belief in his talent, to trust his genius.

“I’ve always believed I can play tennis when I don’t train so much,” he said. “That’s been maybe one thing, the confidence I have in my game, even if I don’t play so much, where I still feel I can come up to a good level. Maybe that takes away some pressure.” [7]

Because he knows that he has trained intelligently and consistently over decades, Federer is able to rest confidently on the knowledge that he has attained a level of proficiency in the game that will carry him to success. Equally, he knows that if he continues to train intelligently, he will be able to do fewer hours of physical work than many of his competitors, protecting him from injury while still preparing him for tournaments.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from this as musicians. As Noa Kageyama pointed out in his seminal blog post [8], the number of hours one spends in a practice room aren’t the key to success – intelligent practice is a far greater predictive of success. So we all need to do the things we’ve been told are sensible: mental practice, interleaving, slow practice, and so on. If we ‘work smart’, we design our success. We pay attention to the process, and then have faith that it will carry us through, because we have designed it with success in mind. Or as FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my ends must be a genuine trust…[8]

Balance, routine, follow-through, belief. Which one will you start working on today?

[1] Kevin Mitchell, ‘Roger Federer: Methuselah of sport still has unshakeable belief in his talent’, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/13/roger-federer-methusalah-of-sport-still-has-unshakeable-belief-in-his-talent, accessed 14 January 2019.

[2] David Foster Wallace, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html, accessed 15 January 2019.

[3] Roger Federer quoted in Mitchell, op.cit.

[4] Tim Lewis, ‘The Pleasure (And Pain) Of Watching Roger Federer, The Greatest Tennis Player Ever’, https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/a22019668/the-pleasure-and-pain-of-watching-roger-federer-the-greatest-tennis-player-ever/, accessed 15 January 2019.

[5] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, London, 2001, pp.41-2.

[6] Lewis, op.cit.

[7] Mitchell, op.cit.

[8] Now Kageyama, ‘How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?’, https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-many-hours-a-day-should-you-practice/, accessed 16 January 2019.

[9] Alexander, op.cit., p.45.

Image of Roger Federer in 2011 Australian Open by Christopher Johnson from Tokyo, Japan [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

All about direction: what do Google Maps and Alexander Technique have in common?

When I was teaching the first year Music students at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama last week and asked them what they already knew about Alexander Technique, one of them said ‘direction’. Now, ‘direction’ is a technical term in Alexander Technique, but it turned out my student wasn’t talking about the technical meaning; she meant quite literally that Alexander Technique gives a person a direction of travel. We discussed this in class, and started comparing the Alexander Technique to Google Maps.

Alexander Technique and direction of travel

So is Google Maps a useful analogy? Is the Alexander Technique a kind of psycho-physical equivalent of mapping software? Let’s investigate.

Google Maps and the direction of travel

In order to think about this properly, we need to think in practical terms about how Google Maps works. To take a simple example, if I’m at College and I want to find my way back to Cardiff Central railway station, I would type it into the search bar: it is my destination of choice. Google Maps then takes the information of where I am and where I want to go, combines it with more information about how I’m travelling, the traffic conditions and road closures, and then gives me typically three different routes to choose from. One of these routes will be direct, and at least one will be longer but more scenic. I get to choose my route according to the quality of the route I want to take – fast, or scenic. Once I’ve chosen my preferred route, all I have to do is to follow the indicated path, and I know that I’ll successfully find the station in time to catch my train home.

Alexander Technique and direction of travel

So how does Alexander Technique match up against this? The section of FM Alexander’s books that most neatly speaks to this idea of finding a direction or route is this piece from his chapter Evolution of a Technique:

In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order

(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]

Well, in order to, for example, raise my recorder to my lips, I need to have a destination in mind; for today, let’s say my destination is raising the instrument as efficiently as I can. Having chosen my destination, I then need to be my own route creator, instead of relying on Google’s algorithms! But I’ll be doing something similar: taking my starting place and my destination into consideration, along with other relevant information like joints, muscles, size of recorder, and so on. I can then construct a route or three that will get me and my recorder to where I want them to be.

Now, I can think of at least three ways I could get my recorder to my mouth. But part of my goal wasn’t just locational, but qualitative; I wanted to get it to my mouth efficiently. So I can now choose the route (process) that best fulfils that qualitative criterion.

And having chosen my route, all I need to do is to follow it as accurately as I can.

As a starting place for understanding how the Alexander Technique works, it’s not a bad analogy! So where do you want to go today, and what routes will you choose from to get there?

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 2001, p.39.

(And yes, I did mention Google Maps in a recent post – this one – but for a very different reason)

Image courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Settling for ‘good enough’ as an enemy of improvement

Last week I wrote about the dangers of perfectionism, and how trying an attitude of ‘good enough’ might be the thing that helps break through the fixed thinking that creates it. This week, just to be contrary, I’m going to warn you about the dangers of relying upon ‘good enough’ as a standard. Do you rely upon things being ‘good enough’ and risk losing out on improvement?

Fixed ideas and conceptions

I paraphrased FM Alexander’s statement about fixed ideas last week, but this week I thought I should quote it in full:

A teaching experience of over twenty-five years in a psycho-physical sphere has given me a very real knowledge of the psycho-physical difficulties which stand in the way of many adults who need re-education and co-ordination, and, as the result of this experience, I have no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.[1]

Alexander firmly believes that a student’s fixed ideas are their stumbling block: their ideas about “doing it right;” about doing things “their way;” their ideas about what they can’t and can’t do. Frankly, from my own experience, even something as apparently simple as a student’s belief about the location of their hip joints can prove a stumbling block to their improvement!

Not settling for ‘good enough’ cake

Believing in stopping searching for something better is just such another idea. I have a friend who laughs at me because I am always trying out new recipes. For example, I have two or three classic chocolate cake recipes that I use frequently, but that doesn’t stop me trying out new ones. After all, how do I know that the recipes that I have are the best? By choosing to settle for them (they are, after all, very good), I might miss out on a recipe that is truly amazing.

Similarly, when trying to solve his vocal problems FM Alexander found that preventing the pulling back of his head also stopped the depression of his larynx and the sucking in of breath – and his vocal condition improved. This improvement was even confirmed by medical friends. But if FM had settled for preventing the pulling back of his head he would never have thought about the relationship between his thinking and the direction of his movement, and we wouldn’t have the Alexander Technique. He would have had a nice acting career in Australia, and I’d be teaching something else.

So I think we should be grateful that FM didn’t own the conception ‘good enough for the bush’ (yes, that’s an Aussie expression). We would have missed out on a tool that stresses (almost?) unlimited potential and continual improvement!

So next time you settle for ‘good enough’, just take a moment to check back in your mind, and see if you can count up how often you take that option. Maybe it’s time to try a new recipe.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat 1997, p.294.