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Does your concept of education hold you back from brilliance?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?Last time, you’ll remember that we discussed how, in early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. As I said last time, this is entirely understandable. If a student has come to me, it’s probably because they’re not happy with what they’re doing at the moment, and they want to fix it so the trouble they’re experiencing goes away.

The train of thought the student has typically goes like this:

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical (and emotional) consequences of statement: 

  • There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting
  • I am doing it the wrong way.
  • (Bad me)

Last time I talked about the logical fallacy behind trying to find a One Right Way to sit. Next time I’ll talk about the self-criticism implied by the ‘(Bad me}’ part of the thought train. And in this article I want to talk about how we often hold a view of education that holds us back. It’s implicit in the thought train above, and it gets in the way of us improving.

Let’s get started.

Education – what it so often appears to be

“There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting”

Most of us have been through some sort of school system, and I think most of us have at some point been exposed to the idea of the ‘right answer’. A typical scenario runs a bit like this:

A teacher asks a question of a class of children. There is an immediate sea of hands. Who will be labelled the brightest child? The one who puts up their hand and answers the question not simply correctly, but faster than anyone else.

And what happens to the student who puts up their hand but doesn’t give the answer the teacher is expecting? At best, they are told they are incorrect. At worst, the child is put down in such a way that they feel belittled and ashamed.

Of course, when we get a bit older we realise that not all of life works this way. We learn that sometimes there may be multiple right answers, or no right answer at all. But how many of us still cling in our hearts to the simplistic model of ‘the one right answer’? And how many of us live our lives with that model in the back of our minds, ruling our interactions?

If a student asks me for the Right Way to sit, they are unwittingly conforming to this model. It might be okay for arithmetic, but it doesn’t function well when we look at the multiplicity of variables we encounter every time we want to sit. [1]

So what other options are there?

Education – what it could be

Actually, what if the heart of education was about the concept of options? What if the job of a teacher is to give a student the tools so that she can discover the options in a given circumstance, and then reason out the best course of action?

And to my mind that’s what good education should be about: giving students the tools so that they can work things out for themselves. So often our experience of schooling systems has bludgeoned us into believing that education is about being told what to do. I much prefer FM Alexander’s concept of teaching:

… by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself, and should not be crammed with other people’s ideas, or one side only of a controversial subject. Why should not the child’s powers of intelligence be trained? [2]

If we persist in looking for the one ‘right way’, we blind ourselves to the given circumstances before us. We end up denying ourselves important information and risk settling for something less than optimal in our efforts to Be Right. How silly that the quest for perfection should cause limitation and a settling for something that  doesn’t fulfil the needs of the moment.

So don’t settle. Look at the circumstances in front of you, and work from there. Work out what is best for you, using your “latent powers of originality.” You won’t be Right – you’ll be something far more interesting. You’ll be adventuring.

Have fun.

[1] chair height, chair slope, chair back, floor surface, shoes, space in front of and around chair…

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the complete Irdeat ed., p.88.

Image by Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos.net

The fallacy of the One Right Way

“Why won’t you just tell me what to do?!”

There is no One Right Way to sit.In early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. This is entirely understandable. They’ve come to me because whatever they’re doing at the moment has caused them trouble, and they want to fix it so the trouble goes away.

But there’s a logical fallacy at work, and a misunderstanding about what education is about. There’s also often a degree of self criticism. These are big topics and I want to take time to talk about them, so this week I will deal just with the logical fallacy. Next time I’ll talk about how our concept of education holds us back. Finally, I’ll talk about the issue of self criticism.

Onwards…

The logical fallacy of the One Right Way

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical (and emotional) consequences of statement: 

  • There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting
  • I am doing it the wrong way.
  • (Bad me)

Let’s look at the idea that there’s a right way of, say, sitting, and at least one wrong way. It sounds like life would be very simple if there were just One Right Way of sitting on a chair. We could just learn it, use it, and not have to think about it again. But it really wouldn’t be simple at all, for this reason:

If this was true, we would first have to decide if there was only one right way, or if we would allow One Right Way for each circumstance (eg dining chair, office chair, car seat). At the very least, we’d end up with a list of Right Ways to suit our usual set of furniture and circumstances.

But what if the circumstances subtly alter – like having to get into the car with the seat a little further forward than usual? We would either have to suffer Doing Something Not Right, or make sure we constructed a set of Right Ways to deal with all conceivable changes of circumstance.

And then we’d end up with a big list of Right Ways. And we’d have to memorise them all.

That sounds like a lot of work to me. I’d much rather learn the principles behind constructing a Best Way (for now) for any circumstance as it arose, and then learn how to think and apply it moment by moment. In the end, it’s just so much easier.

And that’s what Alexander Technique lessons are: learning how to construct a Best Way (for now) for the moment that you’re in. Don’t be fooled by the apparent unthinking simplicity of the One Right Way. It leads to lists, prohibitions (mustn’t do the wrong thing!), and complexity. Go for gold, and learn how to reason out the Best Way (for now) instead.

Is your self image up-to-date with reality?

Self image is how we see ourselvesThe other day I was working  with a student who historically had a tendency to pull his shoulders forwards. The student was convinced he was still doing this. Guess what?  He wasn’t. His self image was lagging behind the physical reality.

Self image: not seeing ourselves as others see us

FM Alexander writes in his second book about a particular kind of preconceived idea, in which we do not see ourselves as others see us. He uses it to refer to people whose sense of themselves is so out of step with reality that they perceive as entirely normal characteristic that the outside world would view as being well away from anatomic norms.

As an illustration, FM picks an example from his own teaching experience of a man with a stutter. In lessons, speaking slowly, the stutter vanished. But when asked to speak in that way in his daily life, the student relapsed I to his stutter as he commented that “Everyone would notice me!”

It’s an extreme example, but it really demonstrates how we all have the ability to be entirely mistaken about how others see us. As FM said:

He [the student] no longer saw things as they were, and was out of communication with reasoning, where his consciousness of his defects was concerned.[1]

But it works the other way, too.

Self image lag

There’s a particularly fascinating version of this kind of mistaken self-perception that arises in Alexander Technique students. They started coming to lessons with a particular physical issue – like having their shoulders pulled forwards – and have come to identify themselves in some way as someone who has this issue. The student is no longer just Joe Bloggs; they are Joe Bloggs, the Person with the Shoulders.

And even after they’ve done massive amounts of work on their particular issue and made huge improvements, it is likely that they haven’t yet altered their identity. They are still Joe Bloggs with the Shoulders, not simple Joe Bloggs. In order to truly change, the student still needs to do the vital work of changing their self image to correspond with the new physical reality.

My challenge to you today is this: what have you been working on recently? Are you so fixated on the fault that you’ve perceived that it has become part of your identity? Check and see if you too need to do a little bit of work on your self image!

[1] Alexander, FM., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.302.

Image by Skitterphoto on Pixabay.

The talent myth: what it really takes to be an ‘overnight success’

Steve Martin worked hard and long to be an overnight successIf you’re in the UK, you may have been watching the amazing young people performing in the BBC Young Musician 2018 competition. Or possibly you’ve watched young people achieving amazing things in competitions like the Commonwealth Games. Very often you’ll hear people talk about how talented these young people are; the term ‘natural talent’ gets bandied around in sporting circles very frequently. But if talent doesn’t really exist (as many writers discuss), then what is the key to achievement? What does it take to be an ‘overnight success’?

It’s not just about the hours

Pretty much everyone involved in sports or performance has heard about the 10 000 hours rule. Popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, very simply put it puts forward the idea that to  achieve mastery in a skill one needs to do 10 000 hours of practice. Of course, it isn’t that simple. Anyone who has seen a child mindlessly playing through a Bach Minuet over and over with exactly the same mistakes every time knows that just doing the hours mindlessly isn’t enough. We need to do deliberate practice – something that actually deals with the mistakes and moves us forward. So what is it that makes a success from an also-ran?

I’ve been reading Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up. Martin became a huge name in comedy in the mid-seventies, and it would be tempting to think that his talent sprang fully-formed onto the TV screen. However, in his autobiography Martin gives a brilliant description of the sheer quantity of work that it took to be an overnight success.

There are two key principles that led to Martin’s eventual success, and they mirror principles FM Alexander discussed in his work: analysis; and evaluation.

Principles for overnight success: Analysis

Martin certainly did the hours – he started working at Disneyland selling programmes at age 10! But he didn’t just sell programmes. He watched the man who did rope tricks, and learned them well enough to become an assistant. He frequented the magic shop, started working there, and learned the tricks so well that he got occasional work as a magician. And he spent time in the auditorium watching the comedians and analysing their timing. Note that the young Martin didn’t just copy the jokes. He worked to understand how the professionals got their results – he tried to learn the principles behind the laughs.[1]

FM Alexander would have commended the young Martin’s efforts. He wrote:

To achieve these results they must study and master the same principles, but they could never reproduce them by a series of imitative acts divorced from knowledge of the processes involved and skill in using these processes. [2]

Principles for overnight success: Evaluation

However, the teenage Martin didn’t content himself with just analysing the efforts of others. He also evaluate his own performance. In his book he shares an example page of the performance notes he used to write after every performance. 

“I kept scrupulous records of how each gag played after my local shows for the Cub Scouts or the Kiwanis Club. “Excellent!” or “Big laugh!” or “Quiet,” I would write … then I would summarize how I could make the show better next time.” [3]

By doing this kind of work, Martin mirrored the kind of evaluation that Alexander himself undertook when trying to solve his vocal problems. FM didn’t just work on a trial-by-error basis. In Evolution of a Technique he gives a clear description of how he made hypotheses, tested them, and then evaluated the results in order to refine his ideas.

And Martin, like FM Alexander, kept working and refining over a long period of time: “My act was eclectic, and it took ten more years for me to make sense of it.”[4] So time IS important, but it isn’t the only, or even the primary factor. If we want to be an ‘overnight success’, we have to be prepared to do the long hours not of mindless repetition, but of analysis and evaluation. Those are the skills that we need to hone if we truly want to succeed.

[1]Martin, S., Born Standing Up, London, Simon & Schuster, 2007, p.36.

[2]Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.121.

[3] Martin, op.cit.,  p.51.

[4] ibid., pp.65-6.

Process oriented practice or product oriented practice?

Process oriented practice utilises the spaces between the notesWhat does music consist of – just the notes, or the spaces between them, too?

This may seem like an odd question, and you may think the answer is obvious: the spaces between the notes are part of the music too. But how often do we think about these spaces when we practise? And how often do we view them as an area of action, rather than as a break in activity?

Following the process: drawing what you see.

When I was younger, I attempted to improve my visual art skills. I remember looking at the African violet on the table in front of me, and trying to draw the flower. It was far harder than I thought. I thought I knew what the flower looked like. But when I really looked at the violet in front of me, the shapes didn’t conform to my mental image of what the flower ‘should’ look like. A combination of perspective and the background/environment around the flower changed the shapes. It left me with a dilemma: do I draw what I think is right, or draw what I actually see in front of me?

Betty Edwards in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain speaks about this phenomenon. We struggle to draw what is in front of us, because we think we know what the object we are drawing ‘should’ look like. William Westney in his book The Perfect Wrong Note applies the same principle to music:

“musical notes are objects, and we know too much about them too – exactly where they should be and how they’re supposed to sound, for instance. Adopting the method Edwards suggests, an enlightened practicer would take a more open, inclusive view, and would  set out to learn the specific physicality of the notes and the spaces between them. To put it another way, what we learn in the practice room should be 50 per cent notes and 50 per cent negative space.” [1]

Westney’s point is that the rests, pauses and the space between notes give shape not just to the notes, but to the way we approach them. Sometimes they are the place where we need to consider how we are going to play the next phrase; sometimes they are part of the phrase musically, but technically are full of incident and adjustment. In these cases just thinking of the notes – the product – is not going to be helpful at all. We need to think of all elements of playing as a whole, not just the end product.

Product-oriented practice

So often we organise our practice sessions with the end product in mind. We have an idea of how we want the music to sound, and we concentrate upon that as we work on the piece. In this mode of practice, any thought that we give to mechanics or technique is secondary to the sound we want to create. It may even not be reasoned out with awareness and deliberation. 

FM Alexander would call this ‘end-gaining’. He gives a fantastic definition of end-gaining in his chapter about a golfer who can’t keep his eye on the ball.

His habit is to work directly for his ends on the “trial and error” plan without giving due consideration to the means whereby those ends should be gained. In the present instance there can be no doubt that the particular end he has in view is to make a good stroke … the moment he begins to play he starts to work for that end directly, without considering what manner of use of his mechanisms generally would be the best for the making of a good stroke. The result is that he makes the stroke according to his habitual use… takes his eyes off the ball and makes a bad stroke. [2]

End-gaining is Alexander’s way of describing what we do when we concentrate on product instead of the process that will actually help us achieve it. This is what we do when we focus on the notes/melody/music instead of the combination of all the elements that create the product that we call ‘music’.

Process oriented practice

The kind of practice advocated by Westney  – what I am terming ‘process oriented practice’ – is much closer to what Alexander would call ‘giving due consideration to the means’ that will enable the desired end to be gained. We need to look not just at the notes, but at space between them. This is the ‘negative space’ where we must complete whatever is necessary physically to get us from one note to the next. In process oriented practice we learn to look at the negative space – the hidden world where we explore fingerings, joint angulations, efficiency of movement. We need to learn to look at the notes as the outcome of the process that occurs in the negative space, because if we successfully complete the mental and physical activities needed in the negative space, the notes will take care of themselves.

Ultimately, we need to learn how to allow ourselves, particularly in the early stages of the rehearsal process, the delicious luxury of exploring HOW we are going to navigate our way between the notes on the page. We need to learn to enjoy the pleasure of exploring the universe of negative space in which the printed notes appear like jewels. If we pay attention to the means, the product will take care of itself.

[1] Westney, W., The Perfect Wrong Note, Plumpton Plains, Amadeus Music, 2003, p.109. A big thanks to @strawbini of Twitter for introducing me to this book.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT ed., p.436.

Image from pixabay.com

Does internet-based learning work?

internet-based learningCan you learn effectively from a teacher who isn’t in the room with you?

I’ve been wondering a lot recently about internet-based learning, and decided to investigate it further. Two recent events motivated me.

  1. Internet-based learning – singing.

My son likes surfing YouTube looking for interesting music types to follow. One of the people he found was Boyinaband, who is famous for his song Don’t Stay in School. Boyinaband decided to try learning how to sing over a 30 day period, and used apps and YouTube videos as his primary means of instruction.

Watching the video he made detailing his adventures in singing, I fell to wondering: what would it be like trying to learn a new skill from the internet? What would it be like not having a teacher in the room with me?

  1. Internet-based learning – Alexander Technique

I, like many Alexander Technique teachers, offer lessons via Skype. I am convinced that this is a viable and valuable learning pathway for many students. I was, however, uncomfortable that I hadn’t tried some form of practical skill-based internet learning myself, and thought that I should be consistent with my beliefs and give internet-based learning a try. (I’ve done lots of more academic courses on the internet-based Coursera platform, and found them excellent.)

Added to this, I know that my students watch Alexander Technique-related videos that are available on YouTube, and that like all things available on that platform, these can be variable in quality! Is it possible to learn, not just via an electronic platform from a teacher who isn’t in the room with you, but also from instructional videos where the teacher can’t even see you?

My own 30 day internet learning challenge

Twitter friends and colleagues had been learning yoga using YouTube videos made by Adriene Mishler of Yoga with Adriene  and saying good things about it. I’d never tried yoga before and wanted to work on strength for the running events I’ve entered this season – it seemed like the perfect opportunity. So I embarked on Adriene’s series 30 Days of Yoga. It was a remarkable experience.

What I learned

  • Yoga looks easy and gentle and flowing. It isn’t easy. Sometimes you are working so hard you shake with exertion. It’s also incredibly good fun.
  • It’s really hard to know if you’re doing the exercise or the pose correctly. You think you’re doing okay, but if you’re a beginner it can be really hard to know if you’re really bending in the right spots. Sometimes it can also feel like it’s going faster than your brain can reason out. Mind you, I know students who have had exactly that experience in face-to-face yoga classes…
  • You form an emotional bond with the teacher. You begin to regard the teacher as a friend and ally, even though intellectually you know that they have never met you and don’t actually know you exist! It got to the point where, if Adriene gave some praise, I felt like it was genuinely directed at me.

Recommendations

If you’re going to learn something by YouTube, check around and get recommendations from friends and colleagues. I was really lucky to find a yoga teacher as good as Adriene. Boyinaband, by contrast, viewed videos from teachers who gave advice that I thought was potentially unsound.

Good teachers will know and predict the errors their unseen students will make. Adriene is really good at this. She gives plenty of advice about how to position oneself in each pose, and sometimes it felt like she had predicted my mistakes. She did this by having a long background in teaching face-to-face classes – she has first-hand knowledge of what mistakes students are likely to make. So making sure your online teacher has a good background in face-to-face teaching might be a really good idea.

Personality is key. Adriene has a lovely open personality and rather engagingly does not edit out her mistakes. By the end of the 30 days I felt like she was my genuine teacher who genuinely saw me, rather than just a person on a screen. It is no accident that Adriene has developed a massive online yoga community. An engaging personality may also be a danger, though. Just because someone is engaging doesn’t mean they know their stuff. You have to do your due diligence and make sure the teacher is well-qualified.

Try to photograph or video yourself. You’ll soon learn if you’re doing things the way the teacher intends – you may even be pleasantly surprised! One of the delights of Boyinaband’s account of his singing challenge is the ‘before’ and ‘after’ snippets. I don’t have any such pictures, alas, that I can share (I’m too shy). However, one of my Twitter friends did video herself doing yoga, and was able to use it to improve her form very effectively.

Alexander Technique is a great pre-requisite for other forms of internet-based learning. I found that I was able to follow Adriene’s instructions pretty clearly, and I think that my AT knowledge played a huge part in that. I know where the muscles and joints are, and what the normal ranges of motion should be. I also am fairly good at designing a process for how I’m going to move, and then carrying out my process with accuracy. I can well imagine that someone without that background of understanding may well fall into patterns of poor use that could impede the learning process.

And all of those points are relevant for learning Alexander Technique by distance learning, too. Go by recommendations. Check out the teacher’s background. Make sure that you feel comfortable with them. If you do these things (and make sure that your technology set-up is up to the task), you’ll have a really good internet-based learning experience.

A dreadful secret about Alexander Technique and pain issues

Alexander Technique and pain issues…

The secret? You don’t notice when it stops hurting.

A story.

As a very young teacher, I worked with a student who had severe sciatic pain. It would cause the student to spend sometimes days in bed, and severely curtailed the person’s quality of life. I gave them weekly lessons – we’d agreed 10. At lesson 7, the student said at the very start that they didn’t feel they were getting any benefit from the lessons.

I asked about why they’d started lessons. “To help me deal with my sciatic pain.” And how was that pain? “Oh, that vanished weeks ago.” Had the student done anything else in that time that would have made such a dramatic difference? “No, just these lessons.” Had their quality of life improved? “I’ve been moving pots around in the garden this morning.” Could the student have done that before taking the lessons? “Well… No. No, probably not. But I still don’t see what benefit I’m getting from these lessons.”

The student had made huge changes to the way they were moving (and thinking about moving), but once the changes were made, they didn’t think about how debilitating their condition had been before. The student was too busy having fun in the garden!

Selective forgetting: we are geared towards health

When people come to the Alexander Technique with pain issues, they (understandably) hope that the lessons will deal with the pain. And they really want it to do the job quickly. And sometimes dramatic changes really do happen very quickly, and are really noticeable. But when often the change is a little more gradual, we sometimes fall into a cognitive trap that is there to help us, but also gets in the way of us celebrating success: selective forgetting.

What do I mean? Well, when things change gradually, we don’t notice them change. The incremental effect is huge, but day-to-day the changes fall below our ‘just noticeable difference’ threshold, and we forget. It’s a bit like when my son was small, and he said ‘ambliance’ instead of ‘ambulance’. There was a day when he used ‘ambliance’ for the last time, but I couldn’t tell you when it was. Or reading to my son: I would read stories to him every night when he was young. Now he is 14, and I don’t read to him any more; it gradually dwindled and ceased. I didn’t pick a day on the calendar and say, ‘this is the final day for reading aloud to my son’. There was such a day, but I didn’t notice it go by.

Change is like that. Even with sometimes quite severe pain issues, students won’t notice when the difficulty stops. They’re too busy having fun with all the new things they can do. My student didn’t really remember how bad the sciatic pain was, because they were too busy tidying their (much-loved) garden. My music students are too busy learning new repertoire to notice that the use issue that had held them back, isn’t holding them back any more.

They are too busy having fun.

Alexander Technique and pain: getting out of the groove

My music students and my gardening student had something in common – they were stuck in a groove. They were used to thinking in moving in certain ways that didn’t help them. But it really doesn’t take much to change that situation. FM Alexander writes:

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; but when once it is lifted out of the groove, it is astonishing how easily it may be directed. At first it will have a tendency to return to its old manner of working by means of one mechanical unintelligent operation, but the groove soon fills, and although thereafter we may be able to use the old path if we choose, we are no longer bound to it.[1]

I would add that, not only are we not bound to the old path, but we are so full of the excitement of finding new paths that we don’t even bother looking at the old one!

What does this mean for our old habitual ways of doing things (and the discomfort we caused ourselves)? There’s a day when the discomfort stops, but you probably won’t even see it. You’ll experience the challenge through the period while things change, and you’ll probably be frustrated that they aren’t completely better. But I have to warn you that, because things change gradually and the moments of discomfort and frustration become fewer, you probably won’t notice when they stop.

You’ll be too busy having fun.

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

Don’t trust teachers implicitly!

trust teachers but don't follow them blindlyShould you trust teachers implicitly? Should you accept the advice of a professional unconditionally?

I met a person recently who had been advised by a doctor that, in order to avoid upsetting the arthritis in their knees, they should avoid going up stairs and not carry anything heavy. The person not only trusted the advice, but seemed to ‘help it along’. Without being aware of it, they made the doctor’s advice pertinent by placing extra strain on their knees. They would almost push themselves down into the floor at the base of the stairs, as if to ensure that their knees were in the least beneficial position for the physical act of climbing the stairs. Their knees would hurt, thus proving the doctor’s advice was sound. I stress: they weren’t aware of the physical movement, but they were very clear on their belief in the doctor’s advice.

Belief creates physical movement

Students in my classes are well used to me remarking that the way we describe things and the language we use to describe them are incredibly important. If we describe our hip joints as being somewhere on the sides of the body and up quite high, then that’s where we’ll move. (This isn’t where the hip joint is, by the way!) But this applies just as much, if not more, to advice we are given by teachers and medical practitioners. If we trust a teacher or other professional, we are likely to listen to their advice, and sometimes a little more unconditionally than is advisable. We can fall into one of these traps:

1. Blindly following advice without understanding it

FM Alexander fell into this trap when he had acting lessons with Mr James Cathcart. FM was told to ‘take hold of the floor with his feet’ and conscientiously tried to do so. He never asked Mr Cathcart what he meant, or what the instruction was trying to achieve. Later, FM realised that the tension in his feet was contributing to the whole-body misuse that culminated in him losing his voice onstage.[1]

2. Thinking we are following the advice, but really doing something different

My music students often speak of their instrument teacher telling them to, for example, use their bow in a particular way on their violins. They go away and think they are doing what their teacher told them, only to find out in the lesson the following week that they’ve been doing it completely wrongly. How frustrating!

3. Following the advice so carefully that we copy the movement behaviours of the person giving it

Many years ago, I had a lecturer who wanted to remind his class that thinking required us to get past a degree of mental inertia. He was fond of saying, “Thinking hurts.” But it wasn’t just a metaphor – he would actually jam his head back and down into his torso as he said it. But because he was a well-like and influential teacher, his class started to take on board not just the words, but the accompanying physical gesture. We started suffering recurring headaches!

4. Following advice that is just plain wrong.

I think we can probably all think of examples of this!

What to do?

The advice from me is this: don’t check your brain in at the door! Hold all advice lightly – even the advice from me. Interrogate everything. Work out what you think is most likely to be true, but even then, continue to gently question and test the limits of what you think is true. FM would call this being ‘open-minded‘. Don’t trust teachers implicitly, but don’t blindly believe your own ideas, either. If you can manage it, you’ll find that the act of reasoning out why you’re being told what you’re told will help you to improve faster and more efficiently.

But that’s just my idea. Go and test it for yourself.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, 1985, p.33.

Photograph of Grayson Perry artwork by Jennifer Mackerras

Is your set-up causing pain, or the way that you’re using it, or both?

If I had to give a one sentence definition of Alexander Technique, I would say that it’s a toolkit of ideas and processes to help you carry out any activity you choose in the easiest, most efficient, most enjoyable way possible. Mostly Alexander Technique teachers talk about the way that you’re going about activities, and rightly so. They want to focus on how you are using yourself as you use your office set-up, for example, or your musical instrument, because that’s a primary focus of what the Alexander Technique is about. FM’s whole journey began with the question

[Was it] something that I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?[1]

Right from the beginning, Alexander identified that he was using his body poorly, and that this inefficient use of himself was causing trouble. He very clearly here drew a distinction between, for example, medical problems and self-inflicted problems. FM said he wasn’t physically broken; he just didn’t use his body well in order to speak.

We Alexander teachers also tend to focus on this area in part because very often our students come to us having spent a lot of time and money thinking about their set-up. They’ve spent a fortune on chairs, keyboards and wrist rests to no avail. Students are really ready to think about their own part in their problems.

One extreme to the other

However, sometimes we run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. We can fall into the trap of looking only at ourselves. We note that Alexander Technique is about taking self-responsibility for our problems, and we whole-heartedly take responsibility for everything. But that isn’t sensible. We’ve just gone from one extreme (thinking our problems aren’t our fault) to the other (assuming everything is about the way we’re approaching activity). Neither extreme is true or accurate.

We could argue that even Alexander fell into this trap when he was investigating how to solve his own vocal problems. He realised that he needed to know what he was doing; in his own words, he needed to “analyse the conditions of use present.”[2] But why stop at analysing your own use? Why not do a detailed analysis of your desk, or violin, too? As an Alexander Technique teacher, I can teach you how to use the set-up you have efficiently and well, but if your set-up is poor, you’ll always be fighting against it.

I was working with a violinist last year who’d had the same shoulder rest for a few years. But they’d bought it while they were still growing; a few years later, and it was completely the wrong height for them now they were fully-grown. Once they changed the set-up AND looked at their use of themselves, all the shoulder tension went away.

If we exclusively focus on the way we’re using our bodies, we run the risk of missing out on a whole area of analysis that might yield significant improvements. What about the way our office furniture is set up? What about the way my student’s violin is set up, with shoulder and chin rests? Aren’t these equally worthy of examination?

Check the conditions!

Musicians: look at your set-up. Classical guitarists should think about their footrests and music stand position. Violinist should think about their chin and shoulder rests. Recorder players: consider thumb rests. Don’t take anything for granted.

Office people: take a good hard look at your desk. Are your desk and chair the right height? Is your keyboard close enough? Is your monitor the right height? If you use two monitors, is the one you use most directly in front of you?

Hot-desk people: do you take the time to properly set up your work space when you arrive? We kid ourselves that it will take too long. But isn’t a few minutes worth it for a whole day free of discomfort?

There’s a lot we can do to help ourselves. We can work on how we use ourselves, and that’s the most important job! But don’t forget the external circumstances. They can make a world of difference, too.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion 2001, p.25.

[2] ibid., p.39.

Businessman stretching in an office — Image by © SuperStock/Corbis

Correcting unshakeable belief: what if your teacher was actually right?

Correcting unshakeable belief is like moving a big rock!

Correcting Unshakeable Belief…

I’ve been working with a trumpet student recently. He likes to play his trumpet standing, and as he does so he juts his pelvis forwards and pulls his upper thoracic spine backwards – a bit like the shop dummies at many UK clothing stores! I’ve worked with him; explained how the extension through his thoracic spine prevents movement in his ribs and interferes with his breathing; done hands-on work and given him the experience of the improvement of tone and breath control when he stops the ‘H&M pelvic thrust’.

So has he changed it? Nope.

You see, he is convinced it helps him reach the high notes. Even though he knows that change in pitch happens via valves and embouchure, on some level he believes that the extension in his spine is essential for high notes, and that he won’t reach them if he doesn’t do it. He has an apparently unshakeable belief in the necessity of jutting his pelvis forwards.

I’m sure that most of us, if pushed, could think of a similar experience. I can clearly remember having a very similar interaction with my tennis teacher.

So why didn’t I do what my tennis teacher told me? Why doesn’t my trumpet student do what I suggest, especially when he has had a clear demonstration of the improvement he could experience? After all, if we’re paying a teacher to help us, why don’t we follow their advice?

The answer is that, on some level, we believe that we know better. We have an (apparently) unshakeable belief. And correcting unshakeable belief seems like a very big thing to accomplish.

A question of belief

Everything we do and every action that we make is, ultimately, a result of the constellation of ideas and beliefs that we hold to be true, and that constitute what FM Alexander called our psycho-physical make-up.

We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up. [1]

When we carry out an action it is because, whether we are aware of it or not, it conforms to our image of ourselves and our place in the world. My student, for example, just his pelvis forwards when he changes pitch because on some level he believes he has to. It conforms to his beliefs about himself and trumpet playing. When I come along and demonstrate to him that he doesn’t need to make the jutting movement with his pelvis, I create for the student a dilemma. Do he believe me, or do he trust in his own untested beliefs?

This is the challenge faced by a student in pretty much any Alexander Technique lesson. If the demonstration is sufficiently strong or the previous belief not strongly held, then the student will change what they are doing quickly and easily. But if the teacher’s demonstration challenges a movement behaviour that keys into a core belief about what the student needs to do to exist in the world, then they are likely to cling to the old behaviour.

But the dilemma won’t go away. It will sit in the student’s mind and irritate, a bit like having a stone in your shoe. Sooner or later, my student is going to have to think about his jutting pelvis!

So how do you deal with this situation?

As a teacher, you just have to accept that sometimes (often?) the student thinks they know better than you. Your job is to, in Alexander’s words,  “the placing of facts, for and against, before the [student], in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality.” [2] You can’t take any responsibility for a student’s understanding, only your presentation of material before them!

As a student, you have to approach each lesson mindful of the fact that you come bearing beliefs and assumptions that probably aren’t helping you. If your teacher suggests a change to what you are doing, you need to inhibit your instinctive response (to disagree!) and then as open-mindedly as possible, try what your teacher suggests.

Correcting unshakeable belief is a matter of playing the long game. Just keep presenting the facts (if you’re the teacher), and keep trying to have an open mind (if you’re the student). Sooner or later, something has to give.

[1] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT complete ed., p.304.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT complete ed., p.88.