Settling for ‘good enough’ as an antidote to perfectionism

I work with a lot of musicians, so it goes without saying that I work with a lot of people who would describe themselves as perfectionists. Now, I’m not knocking standards in this post – of course we should strive to be the best we can be at what we do. But I am going to attack the particular stream of perfectionism that causes some of us to delay finishing things, or to delay even starting, for fear that we might create something that falls short of impossibly high standards.

Perfectionism as procrastination

For some of us, perfectionism becomes a means of not starting something we’ve said we intend to do. Many writers will tell you about the curse of the empty screen and the tyranny of the blinking cursor. Artists will talk about the fear of the empty paper or canvas. I can vividly remember, as a teenager, being faced with a blank piece of very nice and very expensive art paper in my high school Art class, and being frankly terrified to mark it because I felt in my bones that any mark I made would be terrible.

This fear of being terrible is a key component in the dark side of perfectionism – we want to be perfect, but are inwardly convinced that we are doomed to fail. So we don’t even begin. Note that it is our belief that holds us back, not any actual clear evidence.

Perfectionism as fixed mindset

But how did we end up this way? Toddlers will fall over many times while learning to walk, but we don’t see them not bothering to get up and try again. What happens to change the way we think so dramatically that we begin to fear even the prospect of making mistakes?

This has been a subject of study for a number of psychologists, including Aaron Beck, Carol Dweck, and Angela Duckworth. Beck’s contribution was the foundational insight that the same objective event can be perceived in different ways, depending on the interpretation – the self-talk – of the person involved.[1] In other words, two children can make a mistake on a maths quiz, but one might have a very different interpretation of that mistake to the other. The first might see the error as proof they are ‘no good’ at maths. The second might see the mistake as a cue to try harder in order to succeed next time. Dweck demonstrated in one of her early studies that telling a group of children to ‘try harder next time’ when in a group solving maths problems was far more successful than simply praising them – the praise group were more likely to give up on harder problems, whereas the ‘try harder’ group did exactly that![2]

Whether we are aware of it or not, our self-talk around whether it is okay to make mistakes, or whether we need to be right (perfect) all the time is a belief that is rooted in the examples given to us by parents, school teachers, music teachers, sports coaches, and pretty much any other adult we were around as kids. Children soak up knowledge, but they also soak up beliefs and attitudes. Some of them will be good and useful, and some will be rather more unhelpful.

Alexander’s take on perfectionism

FM Alexander was clear, in his chapter called Incorrect Conception, that a student’s fixed ideas were the cause of most of the student’s difficulties. All those little ideas and beliefs that each one of us has picked up over the years and added into our own little private universe of what is Right and True – these are the things that trip us up.

it is probable that all his former teachers will have instilled into him from his earliest days the idea that when something is wrong, he must do something to try and get it right. Beyond this, he will have been told that, if he is conscientious, he will always try to be right, not wrong, so that this desire to “be right” will have become an obsession in which, as in so many other matters, his conscience must be satisfied.[3]

If our overriding belief is that it is bad to make mistakes, then we’ll do whatever it takes to avoid them. And if we can clothe our fear with the seeming virtue of perfectionism, so much the better. But whether our perfectionism stems from fear of mistakes or a genuine desire to be perfect, what good does it serve us? It stops us from finishing projects, from trying new things. I know of a French exchange student who barely spoke to his English host family, for fear of getting his English wrong. He effectively threw away a tremendous learning experience through fear! Do we really want to make that mistake?

Listen to the new means; make mistakes

The only way out of the perfectionism trap is to start being prepared to make mistakes. It’s a decision, and as a recovering perfectionist myself, I can testify that it isn’t easy. But it’s the way of progress. Allow things to be ‘good enough’ occasionally. And if you’re having lessons in a skill, whether music or sport or something creative, make the experience of listening to what your teacher is telling you and trying it out, no matter how silly you may feel. You may be on the road to great things.[4]

[1] Duckworth, A., Grit, London, Vermilion, 2016, p.175f.
[2] ibid., p.179.
[3] Alexander, F.M., Concstructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat 1997, p.295.
[4] ibid., p.298.

Change and Alexander Technique: confronting self perception

People come to Alexander Technique because they aren’t happy with the way they are currently using their minds and bodies, and they want to change. But the change they are asking for tends to be a very particular and specialised kind of change: they want to be better, and yet FEEL exactly the same! In other words, they want the improvements without any change in their self perception.

Happy by Derren Brown includes a great section on self perception

I was reminded of this during the week while reading Happy by Derren Brown. Brown recounts how his physical trainer suggested that he work on changing his stance while walking so that he didn’t round his shoulders forward. Brown noticed that when he walked in the way his trainer suggested he felt a sense of authority and connection to others that he hadn’t previously experienced.[1]

Changes feel different.

Brown’s experience chimes neatly with FM Alexander’s concept of psycho-physical unity. Because we are an interconnected mind-body organism, we shouldn’t really be surprised that making a change in the way we stand or walk is going to make a change in the way others perceive us, and in the way we perceive ourselves. Amy Cuddy’s work on power poses highlights a similar fact: if we change one part of our psycho-physical organism, we should expect those changes to create a cascade effect throughout the rest of the organism.

But we so often don’t expect this. We think that we can make a specific change (like walking without hunching our shoulders) and it not affect anything else. This is very human, but it’s still a logical fallacy. And so often the change that is most noticeable is one of self-perception; we feel different. As Brown says in Happy,

Perhaps between a preference for not drawing attention to myself in public and the physical placement of my hunched shoulders, I had come to feel rather invisible on the street. The sudden shift in my mood engendered by this point of correction was startling to me, and a little unsettling, as I felt far more conspicuous. [2]

Feeling right as a means of guidance

When trying to remedy his own vocal problems, Alexander realised that feelings (including self-perception) were very significant in his difficulties.

I had to admit that I had never thought out how I difrected the use of myself, but that I used myself habitually in the way that felt natural to me. In other words, I like everyone else depended upon ‘feeling’ for the direction of my use.[3]

This becomes very important indeed, though, when one tries to make a change to one’s manner of use. For as Alexander came to realise through his own experiences, the way we use ourselves habitually, no matter how inefficient or downright painful, feels right. We feel like ourselves. So when we start to make changes, there is a strong likelihood that we will cause a cascade effect that causes us to feel different. As as Derren Brown experienced, that change in the way we feel ourselves to be in the world can be unsettling.

At this point every student of the Alexander Technique has a choice. Will they stick with the new way of doing things and make an effort to deal with the change in self perception, or will they go back to feeling ‘normal’?

Derren Brown chose to return to his slouch. FM Alexander decided to ride his way through the sense of feeling wrong. Which will you choose today?

[1] Brown, D., Happy, London, Corgi, 2017, p.297.

[2] ibid.

[3] Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.35.

How powerful is a decision?

Anyone who studies Alexander Technique learns that decisions are powerful. Decisions that we make determine how we see the world. They also determine what we think we can and can’t do. 

An example.

proficiency in bass clef is a decision as I play a very large recorder

As a young musician, I learned bass clef quite a number of years after I became proficient with treble clef. Even after decades of playing, bass clef still doesn’t feel as comfortable as treble clef to play.

When I am gigging with Pink Noise Recorder Quartet, I frequently play the contrabass recorder, which obviously requires me to read bass clef. I do it a lot, and I do it well (even if I do say so myself!). 

I don’t own a nice bass recorder, so tend not to play bass parts; those with really classy instruments take those parts. But every so often I borrow someone else’s bass and play, reading from the bass clef. And for the longest time I would struggle a bit and make mistakes, believing that because I don’t have much experience playing the bass recorder (and by extension, the bass clef) I will struggle to read the notes.

And then one rehearsal I suddenly realised… The way I read bass clef easily to play contrabass recorder? It’s the same bass clef that I play with difficulty when I play bass.

It’s the same clef. And the same notes. With the same fingering.

I changed my decision about bass clef being hard. Suddenly my bass playing improved substantially.

I am aware that I probably sound very silly. But that’s the nature of so many self-limiting decisions. How often do we make a choice about how we’re going to act or behave and then realise down the line that our choice is illogical or a bit silly?

FM Alexander knew the power of a decision. In 1923 he wrote:

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

I know from my own experience both as a student and teacher of the Alexander Technique that FM is quite right! So my question to you is this: what little decision or belief are you holding onto that keeps you from performing the way you want?

[1] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT 1997, p.294.

Photograph of Pink Noise Recorder Quartet members by Matthew Mackerras.

Separating injury from compensatory movements

injuries can cause compensatory movementsHave you ever injured yourself, then found yourself moving other parts of you in odd ways so as to compensate for the injured part? Perhaps you found yourself tensing muscles around the injury in order to prevent movements that cause pain? It’s a very human response, but sometimes compensatory movements cause more problems than they prevent. This is a post about how I know this to be true. It also contains a tip or two for how to deal with the problem.

Compensatory movements: autobiography

Last week I injured a muscle in my right shoulder. For a number of days the injury was so bad that I could barely move my head. I even took anti-inflammatories – it’s rare for me to resort to painkillers, but on this occasion it was necessary. And a week later, it still isn’t better.

When I met up with a colleague earlier this week, she did some hands-on Alexander Technique work with me, and found that I’d been tightening pretty much every muscle in my shoulder girdle on both sides in order to try and deal with the pain. With her help, I started to loosen off some of the tension.

The pain got worse in the injured area. Then everything felt markedly better.

Compensatory movements are different to the injury

Why did my symptoms improve, even though Alexander Technique does not (and cannot) deal directly with injuries?

It’s important to remember that there is a difference between an injury and our reaction to it. I think we’ve all had the experience of hurting ourselves – perhaps spraining an ankle – and then moving differently in order to avoid putting pressure on the injured area and causing ourselves pain (and possibly further injury). We indulge in compensatory movements, usually to avoid further hurt and upset.

Unfortunately, our compensatory movements aren’t always rational or reasonable. Worse than that, they aren’t reasoned, and fall into the category of what FM Alexander would call ‘specific treatment’ which doesn’t take into account the general working of a person’s whole body:

It is in the nature of unity that any change in a part means a change in the whole, and the parts of the human organism are knit so closely into a unity that any attempt to make a fundamental change in the working of a part is bound to alter the use and adjustment of the whole … any attempt to eradicate a defect otherwise than by changing and improving this faulty concerted use is bound to throw out the balance somewhere else. [1]

The injury makes one set of adjustments to the working of the whole body. If we then generate compensatory movements and throw those into the mix, we can have no idea of what effect all of these will have on the condition of our general use of ourselves.

As I said, compensatory movements are likely to be rational or reasoned, they are almost certainly specific ‘fixes’, and sometimes they can cause us more discomfort than the original injury! I think every Alexander Technique teacher could tell stories of students who had created elaborate movement strategies that ultimately were detrimental to the student’s wellbeing, even though the student had created them from the best of intentions.

So what do we do to avoid making ourselves feel worse?

Top tips

  1. Let yourself be injured. Don’t try to ‘muscle through’ activities.
  2. Think about range of motion and alternative movements. You will be tempted to throw lots of muscular tension at your problem to prevent movement of the injured part and avoid pain. Better to know what ranges of motion you can use safely, and find alternative ways of doing things. For me, this has meant getting much better at using my left arm!
  3. Make an effort to think about your head-body relationship. If Alexander is right and our general condition of use is fundamental to our wellbeing, then spending time thinking about this relationship will help to ease any tension we may have unwittingly created by compensating for the injury.

Afterword

I’ve found since meeting with my colleague that if my shoulder is particularly painful, I need to do a quick check of myself. What am I doing with my head in relation with my body? Am I letting my arms be optional add-on structures, or am I pulling them in towards my midline? And then, if I think about leaving my neck and shoulder muscles alone, the pain rapidly gets worse and then much better.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.54.

Image courtesy of yodiyim at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Stick or quit? Resilience vs knowing when to quit

Stickability – resilience – is considered a virtue. We all love stories about people not quitting in the face of adversity. But are there times when our love of ‘not quitting’ stops us from taking care of ourselves?

Resilience vs not quitting: two stories

For example, one of my students recently told me about how they spent years learning a musical instrument that they came to loathe. But they didn’t quit – they kept playing even after the joy had gone because they didn’t want the instrument to win. The student wanted to prove mastery; they wanted to prove they were a person who didn’t quit.

I did a similar thing with my PhD. Some time into my research, I came to realise that I hated what I was doing. Worse, I came to realise that I no longer wanted to follow the career in academia that I’d initially desired, which made the degree much less relevant to my future and the struggle far less meaningful. But I valued not being someone who quits things, and so I kept going in spite of the physical and psychological harm I was experiencing.

Resilience and not quitting are not the same

I’m never going to knock resilience as a high positive value. We know from the field of positive psychology that resilience – grit – is a key predictor of success.[1] Choosing not to quit when the going gets tough, but to keep with a challenging process in order to achieve a desired goal is a great skill. But that isn’t what we are talking about here.

When my student didn’t quit music lessons, and when I didn’t quit my degree, we were indulging in a behaviour that isn’t really resilience. We were blindly adhering to a value or belief structure even in the face of compelling evidence that we were hurting ourselves while working for a goal we no longer valued. This is what FM Alexander referred to as a ‘rigid habit of mind’ and said was the cause of many demonstrable evils.[2] In my case, it led to a real struggle with my mental health that took a long time to heal.

Borrowing FM’s idea of travel analogies, refusing to quit in the face of evidence that you’re engaged in the wrong activity is a bit like this. Imagine you’re in the car, driving along the M4. You want to go to London, but you’re heading west (international readers: this is a bad move!). You drive past Bristol, past Cardiff. You realise that you’re heading the wrong way, but you don’t turn around. Instead, you keep driving all the way to St David’s (on the west coast of Wales) just to punish the road. And the further you go, the angrier you get at the road for not taking you where you want to go.

In this story not quitting in spite of compelling evidence sounds like a form of madness, and something to be laughed at. But isn’t this a form of madness that we all indulge in sometimes? It’s not for nothing that at the beginning of the chapter where FM talks about rigidity of mind, he quotes Allen Upward as saying:

“The man who has so far made up his mind about anything that he can no longer reckon freely with that thing, is mad where that thing is concerned.”[3]

So when do you stick, and when do you quit?

That’s a tough question, and there’s no single right answer. But a clear-sighted analysis of the costs and the benefits of what you’re doing, carried out regularly, is going to help you avoid the rigid thinking that is so dangerous. You can try asking yourself these questions:

  • How much am I suffering?
  • Is the short-term cost worth the long term gain? In other words, is the goal I’m heading for one that I truly desire?
  • Is it possible to stop temporarily to give myself a break? (This is what I should have done with my PhD)
  • Do I love what I’m doing, in spite of the suffering?
  • Is there anything that I haven’t considered – an alternative that I haven’t seen yet?

Only you can decide if you’re following the right path; just don’t let yourself fall into rigid thinking and find yourself going to a place you don’t want.

[1] See Duckworth, A., Grit, London, Vermilion, 2016, for a discussion on the experimental findings around resilience and success.

[2] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat complete ed., p.52.

[3] ibid., p.51.

What Google Maps can teach us about ignoring advice.

Have you ever asked for advice, and then ignored it and done what you wanted to anyway? Ignoring advice from experts and teachers isn’t very sensible, but it’s very human, and I think we all do it occasionally.

Google Maps: a paradigm example of ignoring advice

I was reminded of this the other day when out with a friend. My friend used Google Maps to give directions to where we were going, but didn’t follow the directions given. Rather, my friend decided that they knew better than the app and chose their own route – even though we were going to a place neither of us had been before!

It’s very tempting, when faced with a road you know, to use the known road rather than the one that is unfamiliar. But it might not be the best way to where you want to go. And this isn’t just a transportation story, but a metaphor about trying to reach any new goal; and it’s a story that FM Alexander used in one of his very best chapters, called ‘Incorrect Conception’.[1]

So why is ignoring advice so common?

FM Alexander says that we ignore advice because of our own fixed ideas about what we can and can’t do. For example, a singer might have a belief that they need to throw their head backward in order to take a breath. Their teacher might notice this, and work with the singer to encourage them to open their mouth by allowing the jaw to drop. But if the singer is convinced of the necessity of throwing their head backwards, they’ll keep doing it, no matter what their teacher says.

That is to say, they’ll keep doing it… until they don’t.

I once worked with an actor who made a very particular set of muscular contractions in order to use their voice. Every lesson with this student would lead to me highlighting how this set of contractions wasn’t helping the actor’s voice, and the actor saying a variant of ‘But I NEED to do that!’ After months of lessons, I was ready to tell my actor student that I couldn’t help them. As the lesson started, I had my goodbye speech planned. It was that very lesson that the actor exclaimed, “I’ve been doing this really weird muscular thing, and it’s not helping me!” Crisis averted.

It’s hard to take the unknown road, because (of necessity) we don’t know where it leads. We navigate away from all the familiar landmarks. But sometimes we simply must take the unknown road, otherwise we’ll just keep heading to the same old destination.

So if you find yourself going to a teacher and not following their advice, pause. Ask yourself why your are ignoring them. What is it that you are convinced you can’t do? What mental block (or dodgy decision) have you made that might be holding you back?

Your teacher might just be right. Give their advice a go!

[1] The original story is in Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.299.

Image courtesy of taesmileland at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Put your self first: why you should pay attention to your body

Treat your body like a racing car - maintain it. Put your self first!I ran into a lovely ex-student of mine the other day. He’s now an acting student in his second year, and loving it. He told me that before he got into full-time drama school, he couldn’t understand why the pre-College programme I taught on had movement or Alexander Technique classes as part of the curriculum. ‘What’s the point of all this work on my body? I want to act!’ was the way he felt at the time.

It’s a great question. Why bother with Alexander Technique, anyway? Why not skip straight to the acting/music/anything else bit?

‘What’s the point? I just want to act!’

I think a lot of beginning acting and music students are likely to be sympathetic to this heartfelt cry. But it’s wrong, and if we substitute a different kind of activity, we’ll see why. For example, can you imagine Lewis Hamilton saying, ‘What’s the point of maintaining the car? I just want to drive’? Or Roger Federer saying, ‘What’s the point of looking after my back? I just want to play tennis’?

I think we can agree that this would never happen! Lewis Hamilton needs his car to function perfectly so that he can perform to his very best. Roger Federer needs his racquets, shoes, knees, shoulders – everything – to be in optimum shape so that he can play tennis to the best of his ability. And I’m sure that both of these top performing athletes would agree that they also need their mental processes to be in tip-top shape, too. They understand that they need to put ‘self first’.

Put your self first

If you’re a musician, you’re a musical athlete. You need everything to work to its best. Same thing if you’re an actor: you need your psycho-physical self to be ready to mould into anyone or anything that you are required to play. Same thing if you’re a chiropractor, or an office worker, or a teacher: you need your mind and body to be as ready as it can be for the tasks you ask it to perform.

The Alexander Technique helps you sort out all the things that you do to yourself that stop you from performing optimally. It gives you tools to transcend your own self-imposed limitations, and gives you options for getting around or coping with limitations imposed from outside (like illness, or bad office furniture).

My ex-student now understands why it’s so important to put your self first. Without a well-honed mechanism, you don’t have reliable tools to create the wonderful things you intend. He now loves his movement and Alexander Technique classes.

Be like my ex-student – learn to put your self first!

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Auditioning? Be honest about what you plan for

Creating a plan B is a good idea if you're auditioning.

We’re coming up to audition time for musicians and actors looking to get college places, so this post is aimed specifically at those groups, but I think all of us can learn something from it. So read on…

I always recommend that my auditioning students have some sort of back-up plan, so that if they don’t get a college place they’ll still have something halfways organised for the year ahead. The reason for this is to avoid making an already stressful situation worse. All auditioning aspiring actors know that the places in colleges are limited, and that it’s entirely possible that even if you audition well, you might not get selected. With that in mind, it’s not a good idea to add extra pressure by going to your auditions worrying about not getting in because you have no idea what you’ll do with yourself for a year if you don’t!

A couple of my students told me about their experience of doing the rounds of acting college auditions last year. They weren’t successful in getting a place. When I asked them about the experience, they said something really interesting.

They both said they went into the experience knowing that they might not get a place. They did the sensible thing and made sure they had a back-up plan. But they both admitted that, by the final audition, they’d both felt an emotional investment in their back-up plan. They were almost looking forward to it. They almost didn’t mind not getting through the audition.

They didn’t get through. And they (almost) didn’t mind. Because they had really cool back-up plans.

Plans and consequences

I think this story demonstrates something really important about the nature of planning. First of all, planning is important. You need to have plans. Plans are so important that FM Alexander spent time in his seminal chapter Evolution of a Technique explaining a model for how to create them.[1]

FM tells us to have a plan, because without it we have no blueprint for the creation we wish to bring about. But we need to be aware, too, that the creation of a plan isn’t enough, in and of itself. If we create a plan and we don’t like it, our commitment to carrying it out will be low. If we like the plan, we will be more motivated to carry it out effectively and efficiently.

And this is what tripped up my students. They knew that getting a place in acting school was difficult. So they made a ‘mental reservation’ – in a sense, they accepted the unlikelihood of getting a place, and mentally said goodbye to it.[2] In a sense, they gave up the mission of getting into drama school! They created a back-up plan that was so interesting and creative that they could place an emotional investment in it. In other words, they effectively made the ‘back-up’ their actual Plan A. And now that’s the reality that they are living.

Plan B really should be ‘Plan B’

So I’m not telling you to go into audition rounds without having a Plan B. It really does take some of the pressure off a difficult situation. But I am telling you that you need to be honest with yourself. Do you really want that place? Then commit to it. 

Commit to the experience of doing the best you can. You may still not achieve a place – there are many applicants and only relatively few places. And if you don’t get the place, you will feel disappointment. But at the very least you will be able to feel pleased that you had committed to the process. And then you can look to your plan B.

 

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

[2] FM Alexander uses this phrase in his discussion of students going about things in their own way; they hear the teacher’s advice and say they accept it but don’t really act upon it. I think we can also do that with ourselves: say we are going to do one thing, and actually commit to doing another. See FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat ed., p.398.

Image courtesy of truengtra_pae at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Pick one thing: the causal factor that changes everything

A causal factor is like pushing the first domino in a domino runOne little domino: the causal factor

Have you ever watched a video of one of those amazing domino runs? The ones that split, go over obstacles, do amazing things? I’m always fascinated by those sorts of displays: the time it must take to set them up, the precision… And the fact that the whole display depends on pushing just one little domino to make it work.

This works for far more than simply dominos. It is the experience of my students, and countless other Alexander Technique students, that if you pick the right spot to make a change, everything else will improve around it.

The causal factor in the wild

FM Alexander found that if he focused on preventing pulling back his head, he also stopped depressing his larynx and sucking in breath, and his vocal condition improved.

One of my students found that, but thinking about how she opened her mouth to sing, she prevented a scrunching down in her neck and could improve not just her singing, but her ability to concentrate upon the words and the line of the song.

Another of my students, a jazz pianist, found that by focusing on listening to the noes he wanted to play inside his head and just allowing his fingers to do what they needed to do, he was able not just to play more effectively and beautifully, but also stop doing all the movements in his legs and jaw that were bothering him.

So what’s going on? Why does it work?

Why the causal factor exists.

A bit like the domino run, everything has to start somewhere. If you look at the dominos laid out ready to go, they look like a selection of separate pieces. It is only when you push the first one that you realise they are all connected.

It’s the same with the problems that FM Alexander found when he watched himself in the mirror. He saw three ‘harmful tendencies’, and they may have looked like three separate things, but FM guessed that it was likely that they were all connected, just like the dominos. The scientific principle involved is called the Principle of Parsimony (or Occam’s Razor) – the simplest solution to any problem is likely to be the right one. FM correctly made the assumption that the three separate physical act he saw were related to one causal factor. He then worked hard to find the causal factor, and successfully prevented himself from doing it.

And we can all do this. My singing student decided not to dilute her attention by trying to think of neck, breathing, opening note, words, and countless other things that obsess singers; she thought about how she opened her mouth, and found that everything else improved indirectly as a result. My jazz pianist found that by focusing on the notes in his head, he was free to let his well-trained fingers find the notes for themselves, and he was more able to stop the other extraneous movements.

So next time you are stuck with a problem that seems intractable, or you have a ton of things you could concentrate upon and you don’t know where is best, try doing this:

  • Ask yourself what is the most important thing about the activity you are about to do. What is your main focus? What action starts the activity? Is there part of the activity that involves high-up axial structures like the head and neck?
  • Decide to commit yourself to focusing on that one thing that you’ve decided is important.
  • Do it. Not just once, but a number of times. Note your results.

You may not pick exactly the right One Thing that changes everything first time around. We know that FM Alexander took a little while to find the right causal factor for his vocal troubles. But when you find it, just like the domino run, everything will have a chance to change and flow.

 

Image courtesy of posterize at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big questions: should I be using mirrors to practise Alexander Technique?

Self image is how we see ourselvesIn my teaching practice, many students ask me whether they should be using mirrors to help them practise Alexander Technique at home. This happens particularly if they’ve done some reading and know that FM Alexander used mirrors. They also note that I don’t have a mirror in my private teaching room, and that I very rarely use mirrors in my public or College classes.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using mirrors? Should you use one, or not?

Using mirrors – ideas in favour

We know that FM Alexander used a mirror when he created the work we now call the Alexander Technique. He wanted to see what it was that he was doing with his vocal mechanisms while acting that was causing his vocal problems, and how it was different to what he did when speaking normally.

To this end I decided to make use of a mirror and observe the manner of my ‘doing’ both in ordinary speaking and reciting, hoping that this would enable me to distinguish the difference, if any, between them… [1]

Alexander was working entirely on his own – no teacher to help him. It makes complete sense that he would want to use a mirror to be able to see what he was doing. Music students often like using mirrors for a similar reason – it enables them to see exactly what they are doing as they play. The music college in which I work has mirrors installed in virtually every practice room. The students can work on their technique and their playing posture without needing a teacher handy.

So if you are working a lot on your own – if you are having lessons by Skype, or your Alexander Technique lessons are by necessity spaced out – then working with a mirror could be a great option for you. You get instant feedback on what you’re doing as you go about an activity. And, sometimes the things you learn and change are actually more valuable than the sensations you would have encountered in a hands-on lesson (because you did it).

Using mirrors – reasons against

This is where things start to get personal, for the simple reason that some people may simply have good cause to find mirrors very difficult. Some people dislike them, or dislike looking at themselves. When I teach group classes, when I ask how many people will find themselves instantly staring at the part of themselves they like least when faced with a mirror, I get many heartfelt nods.

When a person looks in a mirror, he* sees what he is conditioned to see – what the person’s self-concept and body image allow him to see. If the person has a negative self image, he is likely to look first at the areas that he perceives as a problem. At its mildest this is a simple dislike of a nose or some tummy flab; at its worst it manifests as Body Dysmorphic Disorder [2]. BDD is a mental health condition where the sufferer is entirely unable to reconcile the image others see with their own highly prejudicial impression of their body to the point where it seriously affects their day-to-day life. I myself am a fair way towards the clinical end on this continuum. When I look in a mirror, the first place I look is my face, then my stomach. If a teacher asks me to look in a mirror, any teaching point they were trying to make gets lost in a haze of dysmorphic anxiety.

Even if you don’t have difficulties with seeing yourself negatively when using mirrors, there is still an issue around self-discipline. Put bluntly, it can be really hard to not make yourself look like your idea of your ‘best self’! How many of us will pull in our tummies when we stand in front of a mirror, or do funny things with our shoulders? It can take a lot of willpower to just ‘be yourself’!

Using mirrors – my advice

So should you use a mirror? It depends on the answers to these questions:

  • Can you look at yourself dispassionately?
  • Are you able to reflect on what you see open-mindedly? (no pun intended!)
  • Do you have the discipline to be able to not be ‘your best self’, but be imperfect?
  • And have you developed the observational powers to be able to see yourself doing habitual movements while in activity? Or are you prepared to develop those powers?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to most or all of these questions, then using a mirror could be good for you. But if you feel, like me, that a mirror could be more harm than good, rest assured that you can progress and improve successfully without it.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion 2001, p.26.

[2] For a good book on this topic, read Callaghan, L., O’Connor, A., & Catchpole, C., Body Image Problems and Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Trigger, 2017.

*I’ve used the pronoun ‘he’ deliberately here. Frequently I use ‘she’, but I don’t want to give the impression that all females suffer from BDD. Also, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that males don’t suffer from it. Anyone can have an issue with their self image.

Image from Pixabay.