Mental flexibility: why you should try change even when you’re doing well

Can mental flexibility become as good as this lion stretching?

Sometimes when I work with new students (or even experienced ones), they come to the point of asking me: why make change? Why can’t I stay as I am? It’s a great question, and worth unpacking. Especially if things are going okay, why make changes? Why not carry on with the thing that works?

Back to the Great Madeleine Disaster of 2019

Last week I told you the story of the Great Madeleine Disaster of 2019, in which I made a gloriously disastrous attempt at baking using a new recipe instead of my usual one. I was using it to make a very important point about the importance of experimentation and failure if you want to improve.

But the observant and questioning among you may have wondered why I was trying the new recipe at all. Why risk wasting ingredients and time on something untried when I have a perfectly good recipe that I know works well?

It’s a great question, and I touched briefly on part of my answer last week. I wrote:

I firmly believe that if we are to truly learn from Alexander’s work, we must also take on board his example with regard to the role of experimentation and failure in improvement. Quite simply, you can’t improve without changing, and in order to change you have to allow for the possibility of failure. [1]

Put simply, if you want to improve, you have to do something different. If you do something different, you risk it not working. But if it doesn’t work, you have lots of lovely information to sift through. You can evaluate what happened, and learn from it. You can even compare the different process to your old one, and look at the differences to see what you can learn. All of this is valuable.

Why make change? To maintain mental flexibility.

There’s another reason, though, why I tried the new madeleine recipe. It comes down to the nature of habit. If I make the same recipe every time, I get to know it really well. I come to know it so well, in fact, that after a time I no longer need the method in front of me. I go to my kitchen, pull out the ingredients and the tin, and get baking. Pretty soon I can make the recipe without really paying attention to what I’m doing. I can listen to an audiobook, or be doing some writing as I bake.

But if I reach that point, if I’ve allowed the baking to become habitual, am I enjoying it? Am I even really ‘in the room’? And will I get bored of that particular recipe, but go on making it anyway, just because it’s what I know best?

When any activity gets to that point, we have allowed it to become a habit of thought and body. We have made it an automatic behaviour. If we reach that point, FM Alexander says that we have effectively reduced our capacity for mental flexibility and versatility:

We must always remember that the vast majority of human beings live very narrow lives, doing the same thing and thinking the same thoughts day by day, and it is this very fact that makes it so necessary that we should acquire conscious control of the mental and physical powers as a whole, for we otherwise run the risk of losing that versatility which is such an essential factor in their development.[2]

Mental flexibility requires practice

According to Alexander, if we want to maintain flexibility of mind we have to practise using it. This is no different to flexibility in the muscles: if we want physical flexibility, we have to work on it regularly. What better way to work on flexibility than to find places in daily life where we can try new things? I regularly try new recipes not just because I want to find the best ones, but because I want to enhance my versatility as a baker and as a thinker. By refusing to narrow my life to a relatively narrow range of activities and thoughts, I make the choice to use my mental powers in new ways. I choose to bake different things because if I practise flexibility in the small things, I’ll have the skills ready when a big life challenge comes up.

Alexander was very clear about mental flexibility: as with physical flexibility, you use it or you lose it. You also will never know the joy one can find in extending one’s comfort zone.

In concluding this brief note on mental habits I turn my attention particularly to the many who say, “I am quite content as I am.” To them I say, firstly, if you are content to be the slave of habits instead of master of your own mind and body, you can never have realised the wonderful inheritance which is yours by right of the fact that you were born a reasoning, intelligent man or woman.[3]

So do some mental flexibility training! Get out there, and try something new. It could be the making of you.

[1] https://activateyou.com/2019/08/experimentation-and-failure-in-improvement/

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT NY 1997, p. 65.

[3] ibid., p.67f.

Image: Yathin S Krishnappa [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

The importance of experimentation and failure in improvement

Making madeleines was my practical experience of experimentation and failure in improvement

I write fairly often here about the importance of experimentation and failure in improvement, because I believe both are vital in refining your work. Today I’m doing it again, but I’ve got a personal example to share, because I think it’s important too that you see that I try to practise what I teach! I’m also sharing this example in detail because it gives you an idea of how Alexander Technique thinking looks ‘in the wild’.

The background to experimentation and failure in improvement

FM Alexander’s whole approach to organising thinking and movement had its roots in experimentation and failure. He spent months watching himself in a mirror (sometimes 3) as he recited. He observed, he made hypotheses, he tested them. The first chapter of his book The Use of the Self, entitled ‘Evolution of a Technique’ is a frequently detailed description of the way he experimented to relieve his vocal hoarseness:

… at least I could do no harm by making an experiment. [1]

I realised that here I had a definite fact which might explain many things, and I was encouraged to go on. [2]

I continued with the aid of mirrors to observe the use of myself more carefully than ever… [3]

I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months… [4]

Alexander also experienced a huge amount of failure in the midst of his experimentation, and periods when he gathered data that didn’t help to advance his thinking. And sometimes he did feel discouraged, but he didn’t allow this to impede his work.

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… [5]

I firmly believe that if we are to truly learn from Alexander’s work, we must also take on board his example with regard to the role of experimentation and failure in improvement. Quite simply, you can’t improve without changing, and in order to change you have to allow for the possibility of failure.

The Great Madeleine Disaster of 2019

Last week I fancied making some madeleines. I have a nice tin that I bought in France, and I don’t use it as often as I’d like. I also had found a new recipe that I fancied trying – it didn’t follow the same procedure as my trusty normal recipe, and it added honey. It sounded like fun. Out came the tin and the ingredients.

I halved the recipe – I didn’t need masses of the things. And I had to bake in two batches, because the tin is small. The first batch was unsuccessful. The madeleines spread rather than rose, and they stuck to the tin. After digging them out. I paused and had the following thoughts.

Analysis 1: They stuck A LOT.
Hypothesis 1: I didn’t grease the tin sufficiently.
Test 1: Give the tin a really careful greasing, and a careful coating of flour to prevent sticking.

Analysis 2: They spread A LOT.
Hypothesis 2: This is because of the honey – it tends to cause that sort of spread pattern when added to baking. Alternatively, it might have been caused by the odd mixing method in the recipe. Hard to tell which at this point.
Test 2: throw in a little baking powder to see if that counteracts the spreading. If it’s the honey, it should give a sufficient lift to help. If it’s the odd method, it should make up for the lack of the introduction of lightness and air in the mixing.

So I tried both those things on the second batch.

Madeleines, Take 2

The second batch were even worse than the first. They still spread, but not as much. They rose up stunningly well, and then collapsed back down to create a crisp exterior and a raw interior. They were totally inedible. On the plus side, they didn’t stick to the tin! I had a good think, and these were the results of my analysis:

Analysis 1: Careful greasing of the tin was a big success. Go me!!

Analysis 2: The rising and falling pattern happens when there is either too much raising agent, or the oven is too hot.
New hypothesis: the oven temperature was too high.
Test: check against other recipe.

Sure enough, when I checked my usual recipe, the oven temperature was a lot lower. So I learned some really important things:

  • Grease the tin very carefully indeed
  • Make sure the oven temperature isn’t too high
  • The traditional mixing method for madeleines helps given them lift. If adding honey, use the traditional mixing method because it will help counteract the honey’s ‘spread effect’.

Experimentation and failure: vital tools

It’s never nice to have a baking failure. But this one taught me a lot about things I need to consider in order to make my baking better than it was before. And that’s the whole point about trying things and failing: from analysing the failure you learn things that you didn’t know before. You refine your knowledge of technique and principle. You learn to apply them more carefully. And when you do these things, you become better at what you do. So don’t be afraid of experimentation, and enjoy your failures. Your baking will be better for it.

[1] Alexander, F.M. (1985[1932]) The Use of the Self London: Orion, p.26.

[2] ibid., p.28.

[3] ibid., p.33.

[4] ibid., p.41.

[5] ibid., p.32.

Image by Varaine [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

The (Alexander Technique) secret of how to keep success going

I think we’ve all had the experience of having a little bit of success at something – tennis backhand, semiquaver runs, baking biscuits – and being a little bit fearful because we don’t really know how to keep success going. Those first few times we succeed, it can feel like a total fluke as to whether we keep doing well or spectacularly fall on our faces. We want to improve, and to be able to consistently succeed at the activities we attempt. But how can we do that?

The Alexander Technique gives us two areas where we can work. Let’s look what the areas are, why they exist, and how we can improve each of them.

Little better than chance?

I remember when I was first learning to play tennis, and learning the movements required to complete a good backhand stroke. Sometimes my coach would send a ball to me, and I would carry out the backhand technique perfectly. Other times it would go wildly, astonishingly, impressively wrong. But why was it so hit-and-miss (sometimes quite literally)?

If you’ve had this experience, it typically occurs because either your process is off (or not fully understood), or you’ve not got sufficiently consistent use of yourself to be able to carry out your process effectively.

Dodgy process: if we don’t yet fully understand the process we are following then we’re likely to make unintended changes between repetitions. If this happens, no matter how well we use ourselves when using the process, positive results are likely to be little better than chance.

Inconsistent use of self: if your co-ordination and your general use of yourself is not consistently good, you aren’t likely to be able to follow our good process consistently well every time, and your results are likely to be patchy. 

table showing that good process AND good use of self are needed to keep success going.

Two areas of attack to keep success going

From the diagram above, it’s pretty clear that there are two areas of attack if you want to have consistent success in anything you’re attempting. The first is to work on the process, and the second is to work on your general co-ordination – your use of yourself – and your ideas about what you’re trying to achieve in the first place.

In following these two lines of attack we are following in the path of FM Alexander himself, who came to similar conclusions when he was attempting to solve his own vocal problems. After he had been working on the problem for some time, he realised that he was not simply creating a new process and then attempting to follow it. Rather, he was creating a new process (a set of directions), but was doing something else too:

I saw … a decision on my part to do something at once, to go directly for a certain end, and by acting quickly on this decision I did not give myself the opportunity to project as many times as was necessary the new directions… with the inevitable result that my old wrong habitual use was again and again brought into play.[1]

Alexander recognised two things:

  1. He needed to practise his new process more thoroughly
  2. He had allowed another sneaky idea to get in the way: he had added in the idea that he needed to act at once. This got in the way of him maintaining a good general use of himself.

So he worked on two fronts, and I want you to work on these ideas too.

Keep success going with mental practice

Alexander knew that he didn’t know his new process well enough, so he worked on ‘giving directions without attempting to do them’. Musicians and sportspeople will recognise this as mental practice. If you run through the steps of what you intend to do you will know them better, thus giving you a greater chance of carrying them out effectively when you need to.

Work on your general co-ordination.

This sounds a bit nebulous, and potentially can be. But I want you to think about Alexander’s realisation that he was led astray by his desire to go into activity at once. Can you give yourself the freedom of the thought that, even if your coach sends a tennis ball in your direction, you can choose whether you are ready to hit it? Can you maintain thinking about the poise of your head in relation to your body as you work on that semiquaver passage?

If you work on these two fronts, you’ll be giving yourself the best possible chance of consistent success. We all want to keep success going. If you do the mental work, you really can achieve it.[2]

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.40-41.

[2] Or you can fail gloriously. I remember seeing a snooker match where player Peter Ebdon would come to the table, assess the state of play, choose a shot, play it perfectly, and have it turn out disastrously wrong. This happened every time he came to the table. Of course, he lost the match. In the post-match interview he confessed he was fascinated at how he’d managed to get every single decision he’d made wrong over the course of the match. He really had chosen every shot – but they were the wrong shot! There’s nothing wrong with failing gloriously – it just means you carried out a stunningly inappropriate process.

How do you respond to mistakes?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?

I read an interesting blog post recently about mistakes by Shane Parrish of Farnam Street. He comments briefly that mistakes are inevitable, but then reminded me of a far more important lesson: the mistake is only as good as our response to it.

Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond. We all get steered off course at some point in our lives. What really counts isn’t that we make a mistakes but the choices that follow those mistakes.[1]

According to Shane Parrish mistakes are potentially useful, depending on the choices we make afterwards. And FM Alexander would agree! So what is a good method for best using our mistakes to move us forward?

Experimentation leads to information

When I work with my students at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama I ask them to keep a reflective journal of their experiences during their time with me. I encourage them to follow the example of FM Alexander: 

I saw that if ordinary speaking did not cause hoarseness while reciting did, there must be something different between what I did in reciting and what I did in ordinary speaking. If this were so, and I could find out what the difference was, it might help me to get rid of the hoarseness, and at least I could do no harm by making an experiment.[2]

Like FM, I ask them to pick particular areas of playing or studying that they want to improve, and then to construct experiments that will help them work on these areas.

I then have the privilege of reading and marking the reflective journals at the end of the unit. There’s always a massive amount of good in the journals, but also one consistent mistake: the failure to reflect upon their errors and include that learning as part of the design of their next Alexander Technique experiment. And this is what Alexander himself did so well: when, for example, he discovered the three harmful tendencies he exhibited when speaking and reciting, he wanted to know which tendency caused the other two. He examined the feedback from one experiment, compared it to his hypotheses, and then constructed a new experiment based upon it.

As I was unable to answer these questions, all I could do was to go on patiently experimenting before the mirror.[3]

Mistakes lead to re-examination

But what if you make a mistake? And what if it’s a really bad one – a howler? What do you do then?

FM Alexander had those too. At one particular point during his efforts to solve his vocal problems, he even remarks, 

all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.[4]

And that sounds like a fairly big error! And what Alexander did is impressive: he went back to pretty much the beginning of his investigations, and re-examined everything. He conducted “a long consideration of the whole question of the direction of the use of myself.” In doing this he discovered that he’d based all his work on a fairly major assumption which, through his practical experience, he had experimentally proved to be untrue.

The finer points of what Alexander assumed aren’t really important today. What really does matter, though, is that he took the time to learn from his mistakes. And from the way he went about things, we can construct a basic process to follow for our own experiments.

Learning from mistakes: the process

At some point we’ve all learned or used a form of basic scientific method like the one I’ve listed here:

  • Observe stuff
  • Create a hypothesis about why the observed things are happening, or how to stop them happening
  • Create an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  • Gain results

For most of us, though, we tend to stop there. What Alexander would probably rather we did is this:

flowchart of how to analyse mistakes and feedback

I’m hoping the flowchart makes it a relatively simple process – because it is! But many people are like my College students and don’t bother with it. Why?

I suspect it’s partly that most of us learn from a young age to fear mistakes and desire to bury them. More than that, though, it takes a degree of humility and discipline to follow through and really examine our mistakes. But FM Alexander is a prime example of the kind of success that can be achieved if we just do the work.

So will you?

[1] Parrish, S., ‘Your Response to Mistakes Defines You’, https://fs.blog/2014/09/mistakes/ , accessed 10 June 2019.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance London, Orion, 1985, p.26.

[3] ibid., p.27.

[4] ibid., p.34.

Image by Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos.net

Flowchart made by Jennifer.

How do you practise Alexander Technique?

Yellow sign - When you practise Alexander Technique you are a mind under construction.

Students often ask me how they should practise Alexander Technique. Often it’s the new students who ask, but sometimes the experienced ones do, too. We work on something in a lesson, and the student experiences a positive change. Understandably, they want the positive change to persist and even get better. So they ask me: “How should I work on this?”

And at this point I take a deep breath, because I’m about to say something to them that they may not like.

But before I tell you what I tell them, I’m going to explain why asking how to practise Alexander Technique is such a tricky question.

We think we know what practising looks like.

Most of us have either played a musical instrument, or been involved in sport, or trained for a 10k or a sponsored walk, or done something that involves practice. So we think we know what it is. A cello teacher, for example, might work with her student on making the shifts in a 3 octave C major scale, and suggest that the student just works on the shifts in order to get used to the movement pattern. Similarly, when I ran my first 10k race I followed a training plan that told me how often to run each week, and how long/fast each run should be.

Both of these are good examples of direct instruction. The teacher tells the student what to do, and the student (hopefully) goes away and does the thing they’ve been told to do. They are working on a skill, and they are working on it directly (on the instrument/pounding the pavement). 

In addition, the student isn’t necessarily thinking at all of the manner in which they are following the teacher’s instruction – it is possible for them to work on the skill without really considering the way they are using themselves at all. They are taking their current general condition of use into improving the specific skill.

Working indirectly

We know that we don’t have to practise ‘on the instrument’ all the time, but often I find students feel like they aren’t really practising unless they’ve actually held the violin for a set number of hours. However, working indirectly – for example, doing a similar but unrelated activity – can be a great way to improve one’s skill.  I discovered this recently with my running. I started doing daily yoga just as a bit of fun, and then discovered that running up hills seemed much easier because I’d gained significantly more leg strength!

Sometimes even just allowing oneself to stop focussing so hard on something and having a break (or a daydream) can be hugely beneficial. There’s a ton of literature available now demonstrating that allowing one’s brain to drift for a while in ‘default mode’ helps with creativity and problem-solving.[1] How often have you come back from a walk, or come out of the shower, and realised that you’ve solved the problem that was bothering you, without even apparently thinking about it?! That happens because you’re not thinking about it directly.

Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, we practise Alexander Technique by working indirectly. If a student has been crunching their torso down into their pelvis, for example, I probably won’t get them to specifically do anything to try and prevent the crunch. This would be working too directly and specifically – my student would try to use their old familiar ways of fixing problems and possibly end up in even more difficulty than they were before!

This is why, when my student asks me what they should do to practise Alexander Technique, I suggest that they ‘keep the lesson in mind.’ Bluntly, I want them to think about it, but not too closely.

Is that all?! Does just thinking about something really make a difference?

Simple answer: yes. For two reasons:

Changing point of view

FM Alexander was trying to get us to use our brains more effectively, and he firmly believed in the transformative power of a change in thinking. As I quoted last week, FM said early in his writing career,

A changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.[2]

If we take seriously the notion that we are a psycho-physical unity, then it must follow that a change in thinking will lead to a change in our entire psycho-physical organism.

Getting out of thought grooves

I also want us to take seriously the idea that we get stuck in grooves of thought just as surely as we get stuck in habitual patterns of movement. We think the same sorts of things in the same sorts of ways most of the time. So what FM also wants us to do is to re-examine our concept of thinking. And there’s plenty of evidence from the fields of neuroscience and psychology that our traditional ideas of good thinking – keep concentrating, keep focussed – might need some altering.

When I tell a student to keep the lesson details ‘in the back of their mind’, I’m trying to get across the idea that we spend a lot of our lives – too much – in focussed mode thinking, and that what most of us need is a bit more default mode time. We need to trust a little more in the power of daydreaming; we need to let our ideas change in the background while we do other things. If we do this, we will be playing with a new concept of thinking. And if we play with a new concept of thinking, we will change.

[1] My favourite author on this is Prof Barbara Oakley. See her book A Mind for Numbers, or her more recent publication Learning How to Learn, co-written with Terrence Sejnowski and Alistair McConville.

[2] Alexander, F.M, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.44.

Image by Acrow005 from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Are you really changing? Foundational change vs ‘getting better’.

Foundational change?

Foundational change happens at root-level, not in the canopy.

I spent some time interacting with a group of Alexander Technique students recently, and it took me a while to articulate something that I saw while I was with them. There was clearly a lot of improvement going on in these people’s lives, but some people had changed really significantly in ways that others didn’t seem to have. And it occurred to me: there are different levels of change. There is a difference between changing fundamental ideas and beliefs about oneself, as opposed to getting increasingly more adept and more efficient at the compensatory movements that we use to avoid having to change.

How might this show up in practice? A woodwind player might reach a very high standard of accomplishment on their instrument, but if they don’t address the issues that they have around breathing, for example, they may well find they reach a ceiling beyond which they can’t progress. An employee might be incredibly capable and effective, but if they have a self-limiting belief that they aren’t good at communicating or networking, they will always struggle to get their ideas across effectively.

Foundational change = a changed point of view

FM Alexander commented that 

a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.[1]

However, he also recognised that changing one’s point of view could be difficult. 

experience of human idiosyncrasies has taught us that the most difficult thing to change is the point of view of subconsciously controlled mankind.[2]

In other words, most of us haven’t developed the tools or processes – the sheer mental discipline – to be able to change our point of view. We don’t possess the knowhow or the stamina to be able to examine the ideas and beliefs that are within our psycho-physical selves, and then alter them according to circumstance or new evidence. Foundational change, to be blunt, involves a degree of work, and you need the right tools.

Of course, the Alexander Technique is intimately concerned with developing the tools, processes, and stamina to be able to do just this. My job is to be able to help you change your psycho-physical self so you can become a better version of you. And part of that process sometimes involves assisting a person to improve the version of themselves that they currently hold, as opposed to challenging deeply-rooted foundational beliefs, though of course we do that too. To use a horticultural metaphor (borrowed a little from Henry David Thoreau), we can either work on pruning the new growth, or we can get to work on the roots.

Sometimes, thought, a student will work almost exclusively on pruning the ‘new growth’. They do become a better version of themselves, but not in the same foundational way as someone who tackles the root-level ideas and beliefs.

So why might a person decide to stick with canopy-level change? Why might someone shy away from the root-level improvement?

Canopy-level feels safer, and root-level change feels scary.

On the one hand this is human. Sometimes we do this sort of thing because the thing that most needs changing is so confronting and scary that we practise a form of denial and try to avoid it. Or the thing that needs changing is likely to take time and effort, and we really don’t relish the idea of beginning the process.

On the other hand, if we concentrate our efforts on improving the way we are using ourselves currently, we are effectively blocking off areas of our psycho-physical make-up from investigation and improvement. We’re fencing bits of ourselves off and ignoring them for the sake of making other areas better. This reminds me of one of my neighbours. He would spend a lot of time and effort working on the part of the garden closest to his house, but ignore the second part of the garden that was further away (and not immediately visible from the back door). One area was worked and reworked constantly; the other was left to weeds.

I am the last person to advocate taking away the comfort blanket of someone’s denial. I do also humbly and gently suggest, however, that as an approach to life, sticking with canopy-level change isn’t hugely healthy or satisfying. No matter how good we become at the compensatory movements and behaviours that make us feel like ourselves, we still aren’t dealing with ourselves as a whole. We will eventually reach a point where, like my neighbour, there is little more useful canopy-level tidying to be done. We need to move to the bits that are less visible, but will ultimately make a more significant and longer-lasting difference. In the end, foundational change is where our efforts should tend.

[1] Alexander, F.M, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.44.

[2] ibid.

Image: Chamal N [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Fear of falling; cello intonation: Attitude changes create life changes

fear of falling is both a physiological and a psychologic phenomenon.

What does cello intonation have to do with fear of falling??!

FM Alexander recognised during his lifetime that people would likely mistake his work as something purely physical. Any long time reader of my blog knows that this isn’t true! Within the Alexander Technique there is a very strong emphasis on changing one’s thinking in order to improve both mentally and physically. But sometimes the less helpful ideas that form part of the mental matrix with which we interact with the world can be tricky to spot. I’ve been working with some older students recently, and they have highlighted one prevailing mental attitude that really isn’t helping anyone very much: our attitudes towards ageing, and the likelihood of falling as we age.

Fear of falling is something that my older students identify as a very real concern, if not for them personally, for their circle of friends. Having done a bit of research, today I want to use the whole issue of fear of falling as an example of the way a prevailing attitude can change our lifestyle and behaviours for worse or for the better. I’m going to suggest that some of the problems that I see with young musicians (especially strings; especially cellists) actually have a very similar root to fear of falling in the elderly. I also want to show a way that Alexander Technique principles can help if you happen to be stuck in a cycle where fearfulness is limiting your horizons.

Fear of falling as a mental attitude

Having spoken with my students, we’ve identified three areas where we think fear of falling has its root: outdated societal beliefs (in this case about ageing); language use that takes away personal responsibility; and personal decision-making that generates an attitude of mind.

Outdated or mistaken ideas about what is normal:

Our ideas of ageing can be woefully outdated. We consider ourselves on a path to inexorable deterioration after age 40, even though we know that life expectancy is now vastly higher than 30 or 40 years ago. On the one hand we are healthier than ever before, but our beliefs about health expectations haven’t necessarily kept up with the science. As a running enthusiast myself, I know that the races I enter are full of people older than me (and they are frequently far fitter than me, too). In fact, the oldest female to complete the 2019 London Marathon was 84 years old – there’s a video of her that is well worth watching if you want to challenge your perceptions of what older people can achieve.[1]

Language use:

We say to a toddler that they ‘took a tumble’ – their fall is minor and unimportant. Someone who is adult might say ‘I fell over’ – it’s a sentence in the active voice. They’re taking a measure of responsibility for the event. But for the elderly we typically use the expression ‘you had a fall’ – it’s in the passive voice. It takes away any sense of personal agency or responsibility in the event.[2] 

One of my students described how one of his neighbours injured herself by tripping over a hosepipe in her garden. She was furious when friends tried to describe her as ‘having had a fall’. “I fell over!” she exclaimed. My student’s neighbour was not going to allow a change in language use to take away her responsibility for having left a hosepipe in an unfortunate place!

Not only is there no sense of personal agency or responsibility in the sentence when we use the phraseology ‘had a fall’, but the fall becomes a noun – a thing. It has an identity, like a table or a chair. It becomes something that might happen. Falling becomes, in fact, something to fear.

Personal attitude of mind.

And there’s good evidence that attitude of mind has a huge part to play in the likelihood of a bad outcome with falls in the elderly. A study carried out by the University of Sydney demonstrated that, even when people have a relatively high physiological risk of falling, if they perceive their risk of falling to be low they are actually less likely to fall than someone physiologically well who has a fear of falling.[3]

Obviously physiology is hugely important, but we can’t deny that attitude of mind is crucial. If we continue with the example of fear of falling, that fear can lead to:

  • gait changes (which actually increase the likelihood of a loss of balance);
  • reduction in stride length;
  • and giving up activities that are considered risky (and the loss of activity leads to loss of strength, which leads to more balance problems and, you guessed it, a higher chance of falling).

This is why FM Alexander stated that:

When therefore we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed. The act performed is of less consequence than the manner of its performance. [4] 

Put very simply, if a person fears falling, they are very likely to change their gait and their stride length to anticipate the fall and hopefully limit the damage when it happens. Sadly, the very act of changing gait is enough to make the fall more likely. (A similar thing happens to people of any age when it snows)

We can make changes to shoes, flooring, and so on. But shouldn’t we also change the mental attitude that anticipates disaster?

Cello intonation as a mental attitude

When I work with strings players, I very often see them using a lot of muscle tension when they are playing, particularly in the left arm and hand. They have a concern about intonation. When I press them about it, I come across certain broadly common beliefs:

  • Intonation is really difficult, especially relating to shifts
  • If it’s wrong, the audience will hear instantly
  • If one note is even slightly out of tune, the whole performance is ruined
  • The note (which note? Any note!) is really difficult to get in tune.
  • The way to try and control the intonation is to use lots of muscle tension in the left arm, hope, and then if it’s slightly wrong to fix it and pull a face.

Can you see the similarities with the areas that contribute to fear of falling? I hope so!

In both cases the tension and anticipation of a bad outcome contributes to the creation of the outcome. How could we fix this?

Anticipation of fear? Planning for excellence

It’s a truism of the personal development world to say that a person gets the result that they’ve put their mind on. If we anticipate failure, we’re actually in a sense planning that failure, even though we don’t really want it. Not only that, but we then have to put in place ‘disaster recovery’ plans or course corrections to avert danger. So why not use all that thinking where it will make a real difference – before we act?

  • For the older person (or anyone on snow), this means making a decision to keep with a normal gait; to make any reasonable physical adjustments (moving the hosepipe); and to plan before each step where and how the next step is going to be.
  • For the strings player, this means hearing the next note in their head before they play. Then they can trust in their practice and training, and allow the subordinate controls of the body to make the shift.

In both cases, planning for the desired outcome is the key to success. It won’t work every time (life is sometimes random and odd things occur), but it will increase chances of a positive outcome happening regularly. And there’s the satisfaction of knowing that one is doing something useful and positive, rather than being fearful and reactive. Just that satisfaction has to be worth giving it a try.

I also know that my suggestion sounds very simple and a bit glib. But it isn’t. What I’m talking about here is taking back responsibility, and then applying consistent mental discipline to attain a positive outcome. That’s a core principle of the Alexander Technique, and I firmly believe that it can help in almost any circumstance, if you sincerely give it a go.

References

[1] Her name is Eileen Noble. See also https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/news/a27302824/oldest-woman-london-marathon/ Accessed 2 May 2019.

[2] This website from the NHS has a great example of use of passive voice when describing falls. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/falls/ ; accessed 1 May 2019.

[3] https://www.nhs.uk/news/older-people/fear-of-falling-raises-fall-risk/ ; access 1 May 2019. See also http://fallsnetwork.neura.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Delbaere-Wagga-Wagga-2014-2.pdf – A PowerPoint that has some lovely graphics that support the NHS article above. Accessed 1 May 2019.

[4] Alexander, F.M. Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the complete edition, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.60; FM’s italics.

Image By Pz – Own workThis W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape., CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13281261

Expertise and mistakes: how many mistakes does it take to become really good?

How many mistakes does it take to become an expert at something?

Millennium Stadium in Cardiff full of people - what if the number of people represented how many mistakes you make to become an expert.

I recently went to speak to a group of primary school students in Bristol about what it is like to be a musician. The Year 5 students were brilliant. I played this piece for them, and then asked them what they thought a person would need to do to be able to play a piece like that. What does it take to become really proficient at playing an instrument.

Passion, Practice…

First, the Year 5 children said, you would need to really love what you were doing. Then, they correctly identified practice as one of the primary things a person would need to do to become really proficient at anything. When asked what good practice would look and sound like, they even talked about:

  • Little bits every day
  • Working most on the hard bits
  • Working in sections
  • Playing things really slowly

And then one of them said, “you would need to look at the mistakes you were making and see if you could find out why you were making them, because then you could stop them.”

… And Mistakes

Realising that I was in the presence of true geniuses of growth mindset thinking, I asked them about mistakes. They all told me that mistakes are actually really good, because they tell you the things that you don’t know yet, or can’t completely do yet.

At this point I was strongly reminded of FM Alexander’s words about his struggles and experimentations to find a solution to his vocal problems. At one point he says:

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… [1]

And again later in his investigation:

I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to ‘do’ them, and the experience I gained in giving these directions proved of great value when the time came for me to consider how to put them into practice. [2]

Alexander here very clearly views his mistakes and his experiments as valuable, even when they don’t work. Not only that, but he was prepared to persevere with them even for months without knowing if he was having any success!

How many mistakes?

The children in this Bristol school were impressing me with their attitude towards experimentation and mistakes. So I decided to test them. “Do you think I made any mistakes in that piece I played today?” I asked them. The majority correctly guessed that yes, I had.

And then I asked them, “How many mistakes do you think I’ve made over my playing career, since I picked up a recorder for the first time?”

One of the children put his hand in the air immediately. I called on him. “A whole STADIUM of mistakes!” he said.

What a great image. A whole stadium of mistakes. I instantly thought of Wembley, or Twickenham. I thought about the stadium in Cardiff, which I walk past every time I go to Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to teach. Imagine every seat full, and every person in those seats representing a mistake. Every seat an opportunity to interact. A whole stadium of opportunities to learn and grow.

Is your stadium full yet?

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.32.

[2] ibid., p.41.

Image: Wikimedia Commons. No machine-readable author provided. Whoelse~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain]

Shoulders and breathing: should my shoulders move when I breathe in?

I’ve been working with a fair number of singers of late, and I’ve noticed afresh just how much stress and uncertainty exists around what shoulders should do during breathing. When you breathe in, should they move up, or should they stay still? Of course, it isn’t just singers who worry about their breathing; any musician who plays wind or brass may have similar concerns. I’ve worked with sportspeople who also wonder about the relationship between shoulders and breathing.

An image of the shoulders, as we wonder about the relationship of shoulders and breathing.

I’m going to suggest that we work from the protocol created by FM Alexander in his ‘Evolution of a Technique'[1], and see if we can work out what these structures should do.

Analyse the conditions (of use) present

In this phase we analyse what structures are there, and (if there is a physical student in the room) how the student actually uses them in activity. If you are the student – which, for the purposes of today, you are! – then find a mirror and watch yourself breathe for a couple of moments, and note down what you see.

From my blog a couple of weeks ago we know the basic structures behind the breathing mechanism. We know that the ribs move, including the top couple just under the collarbone. (They are raised during inhalation by the scalene muscles)

We also know that the shoulder girdle structures sit over the top of the ribs. The acromioclavicular (or AC) joint is a fixed number of degrees (around 20) but allows for some play as one moves the whole shoulder girdle.

Reason out a means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about.

This is the phase where we reason out a general route towards a better use of ourselves. Let’s have a go at creating a general use of ourselves involving shoulders and breathing.

We know that the ribs move and expand in order to make the pleural cavity larger; we also know that the first two ribs move and raise. We know that the shoulder girdle sits over the ribs. Therefore, it seems logical that the shoulder girdle is also likely to raise during breathing.

But do we actively need to control this? Again, logic would suggest not. As we’ve discussed, there’s not a lot of articulation in the A/C joint, and the first two ribs don’t move a massively long way up. So it seems likely that any movement would be accessory movement – that is, movement that happens to accommodate the body part that is actively moving.

Therefore: we need to pursue a means of breathing that enables the shoulder girdle to passively move.

Project the directions necessary to put the means into effect.

This is where we start creating actual thoughts about what we are going to tell ourselves to initiate movement. Here I want to leave the specifics up to you, but I want you to think about the following ideas:

  • If you include a sentence that involves your shoulders, you will almost certainly activate them BEFORE you turn them off. That’s probably not so helpful! Ironically, possibly the best thing you can do to more effectively handle the relationship between shoulders and breathing is not to think about it actively…
  • You will want to include something to remind yourself that your ribs, chest and back will all experience movement during inhalation and exhalation.
  • You might want to think about what you do with your head and neck as you begin to inhale.

I’m hoping that setting out the question of shoulders and breathing in this way won’t merely give you a simple answer, but also teach something more important. FM Alexander wanted to teach people to think: he wanted us to make our reasoning faculties more alive.[2] If we use the process from his third book, as we have today, we can begin to carry out the kind of thinking that Alexander hoped we would learn to do. And if we do it consistently, maybe our experience both of thinking and of moving will substantially improve.

Let me know how you get on.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.39.

Image courtesy of yodiyim at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why you needn’t worry about doing Alexander Technique wrong.

What if I do Alexander Technique wrong? Can I make things worse?

A tick and a cross - can you do Alexander Technique wrong?

While working with my students recently, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend. There are a number who are worried about changing what they are doing and experimenting, because they are afraid of making things worse.

Does that sound familiar to you? Perhaps you also aren’t completely satisfied with how you’re moving and responding to your environment, but you’re worried about making a change in case you mess it up!

You don’t need to worry, although it’s completely understandable if you do. First of all in this post, I want to examine the background to why a person might think this view makes sense. After that, I’ll explain why we not only shouldn’t worry about doing Alexander Technique wrong, but that we should actually embrace experimentation as a way of life.

Fear of getting worse: everything is connected

I’ve talked a lot recently about the physiological basis behind Alexander’s work: the idea that our minds and bodies are all one thing:

I, in common with most people, conceived of “body” and “mind” as separate parts of the same organism, and consequently believed that human ills, difficulties and shortcomings could be classified as either “mental” or “physical” … My practical experiences, however, led me to abandon this point of view and readers of my books will be aware that the technique described in them is based on the opposite conception, namely, that it is impossible to separate “mental” and “physical” processes in any form of human activity.[1]

If we are a psychophysical unity, then making a change in one area will change everything. So students worry that if they start experimenting with how they are moving their legs while walking, for example, that they could generate unhelpful consequences in other areas that ultimately cause them more problems than if they’d just stuck to what they know. And this is based in truth: if we make a change to one part of the system, then there will be consequential effects throughout the rest of the system, because each one of us is a psychophysical whole.

My students worry, in fact, that if they experiment with the wrong thing, they’ll do Alexander Technique wrong. So they fear experimenting.

However, there is a major problem with using psychophysical unity as a piece of evidence used to discourage experimentation, and it is this. If you are unsatisfied with the results you are currently getting, and you’ve consistently received those results from the process you are following, then you need to change the process in order to improve.

So my students’ issue isn’t really with changing stuff – they’re having lessons with me (and you are reading this blog!) so they’ve signed up for change. What they are afraid of is making a mistake.

Fear of getting worse is a fear of making mistakes

I’ve written recently about how we are taught from an early age to fear making mistakes. Being wrong is bad and shaming; getting the right answer gets us praise and is good. Understandably we most of us want to feel good, so we learn to shun wrong answers. We learn to avoid situations that might entail us making mistakes and feeling the shame that we’ve come to internalise.

This is a powerful motivational factor against making mistakes. Imagine how much more powerful it is when joined to a student’s completely understandable desire not to make any change to their system that might cause discomfort or pain? We don’t like things to hurt, and we don’t like making mistakes, so we fear experimenting and getting it wrong. But we also don’t want to be stuck doing the same old things in the same old inefficient way. What to do?

Category mistakes and robust systems

I wrote in my post about mistakes that much of our fear of mistakes is based on a category mistake. We take the limited number of cases where it is possible to make get things wrong (such as school tests) and mistakenly extrapolate that to all of our experience. I wrote:

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. [2]

The likelihood of us getting something ‘wrong’ when we’re using our reasoning to experiment with how we’re moving and responding to our environment is actually really small. Part of what we’re doing when we’re working with Alexander’s ideas is improving our reasoning processes, so maybe we should have a little more faith in them, and a little more patience with ourselves as we get better in using them.

But there’s another important point that needs to be said. We are not china dolls; we are not inherently breakable. It takes significant amounts of injury or disease to make it actively dangerous for us to experiment with using our bodies better. Obviously, if you have a medical condition you should follow primary healthcare advice and be mindful of not taking things beyond limits. But for the vast majority of us the limits of experimentation are pretty broad. 

So maybe we should be a little more patient and trusting of our selves and our reasoning. Maybe we should be a little less fearful. Maybe we should all just make a few more mistakes. And if we make those changes to the way we respond to Alexander’s work, maybe we’ll notice that our approach to life generally becomes a little freer and more fun.

That would be worth the occasional ‘mistake’.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1984, p. 21.

[2] https://activateyou.com/2019/02/whats-right-with-being-wrong/

Image courtesy of digitalart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net