Performance process vs desire to ‘perform’

Jennifer trying to follow her performance process.

I did a gig with (one of) my recorder group(s) recently, and it brought to the surface something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I noticed myself, while playing, wanting to somehow ‘perform’ – to signal to the audience that I was having a good time. Every time I did, I made a mistake. When I followed my performance process – that is, when I just played the piece in front of me and didn’t think about how the work was being received – the performance was better. It led me to a clear understanding of this idea:

There is a difference between sticking to the process and creating a performance that the audience can embrace, and wanting to ‘perform’. The latter is a different process. At best, it will run alongside the process that actually does lead to the performance; at worst, it will detract from it.

What is performance process?

So what do I mean by ‘performance process’? Quite simply, I mean all acts that contribute to a performer creating a performance of a work. Some people do this without a lot of formal training; they go about certain activities – like studying the play text, or working on sections of their music score – and without being aware of it, create a cohesive and coherent understanding of the work that they then present to an audience. Others learn how to do these processes: they learn text study, or score reading, or counterpoint and harmony. They learn how to rehearse and practice effectively, and they learn how to take the work they’ve done in the rehearsal room onto the stage.

In either case, whether intuitive or formally trained, I would argue that the performer is, when creating a process, following a line of research and reasoning. They are creating an interpretation of a work, and the means by which they will take that interpretation fo the stage. The questions I’ve given below might form broad categories for investigation while creating the performance process:

  • What information can I find to help me decide what the work means?
  • What do I want to convey to an audience?
  • What do I need to do in order to give an audience everything they need so that they can piece together my understanding of the work?

You might notice that these questions are very similar in conception to the steps FM Alexander suggested we follow when constructing a process:

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.[1]

Wanting to ‘perform’ defined

I want to draw a clear distinction between the work done creating and following a performance process with what happens when a performer starts “wanting to ‘perform’.” Here are some of the motivating factors that I notice in myself when I slip into this mindset.

Wanting to perform:

  • Helping the work along
  • Showing the audience I’m enjoying myself
  • Showing the audience what I want them to know
  • Making the audience feel stuff
  • Making the audience enjoy the music.

I think a lot of us will have experienced these desires at some point in our performing careers. It might not have occurred to you before, but they are all examples of departing from the performance process that you have designed, and doing something different instead. That’s why I made mistakes as soon as I started trying to show the audience that I was having fun: I had stopped following the process that we might call ‘Performing the piece’, and instead creating a new process that we might call ‘Look how much fun I’m having!’

As I look at all those motivating factors written down, I can see that there’s a common factor in all of them: lack of trust. Let’s examine that a bit further.

Trust issues in not sticking to performance process

There are three major trust issues that I can identify when I indulge my desire to ‘perform’ a work. One is about not trusting the work, one is around not trusting the audience, and the final one is about not trusting myself. Let’s take them in turn.

Helping the work along.

If I try to ‘help a work along’, I’m tacitly admitting that it needs my help in order to be fulfilling to an audience. If a work is good, I don’t need to help it along; it will contain everything necessary for an audience to enjoy it if I just do the work of playing the notes/motivations/saying the words with the right inflections in the right places. If I try to ‘do a bit more’ to get the work across, then I’m effectively saying that I don’t believe the work has enough integrity to be able to stand for itself. If it doesn’t have integrity, I probably shouldn’t be performing it at all!

Not trusting an audience to understand or enjoy the work for themselves.

If I want an audience to see how much I’m enjoying playing, then I am imposing my enjoyment upon them; I am overstepping a boundary. We can’t make the audience feel anything, and we can’t make them feel any more strongly if we force our personal feelings upon them. Any actor or comedian will tell you what happens if an audience in a comedy is a bit slow and the actors start to try to make the audience laugh: the audience typically will ‘sit on its hands’ and place itself in opposition to the performers. Then nobody has any fun!

Neither can I force an understanding upon an audience. I can give them enough information so that they can easily make the logical/emotive leaps that I hope they’ll make, but again, I am not responsible for someone else’s understanding. This has a distinct parallel with teaching: you can put information in front of a student, but it is up to the student to do the work of integrating that information into understanding.

Not trusting myself

It might not be obvious at first glance, but if I switch from the ‘Perform the piece’ process to ‘Look how much fun I’m having’, I’ve actually made a decision that my original process wasn’t adequate. Not only have I made that call mid-performance, but I’ve made it with no evidence that I’m correct. I’ve chickened out – dropped everything I’ve rehearsed in order to make up a new process ‘on the fly’.

FM Alexander had a similar issue when he was experimenting with reasoning and the creation of a new process for speaking in order to solve his vocal problems. He realised that he needed to overcome the desire not to ‘feel wrong’:

This meant that I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my “end” must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well. [2]

If I drop the process I’ve rehearsed mid-performance, I am not trusting in all the hard work I’ve done. How silly that sounds! 

And how human. It takes mental discipline to stick to the process we’ve designed, even in the face of our own adrenaline-induced confidence wobbles. But we can do it. Alexander solved his vocal issues; we can stick with our rehearsed process trust our smart, understanding and emotionally receptive audience, and have a really successful gig. We can choose to perform the work, rather than perform ourselves performing the work. And if we do, from my own experience, things tend to go quite well!

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1984, p.39.

[2] ibid., p.45.

Photograph of Pink Noise by Benjamin Westley.

Avoiding stage fright: How well do you need to know your material?

Avoiding stage fright can be as easy as knowing your material - make notes for yourself to read!

Avoiding stage fright is a major concern of many, especially those who are new to performing or presenting. And that’s totally understandable: no one wants to suffer through a bad experience, especially if they already have a touch of social anxiety. So what is my big tip for avoiding stage fright, especially if you’re not yet hugely experience? Actually, I have two: let go of the need to be right, and be VERY well prepared.

Wanting to be right.

People learn that being right is what counts from early childhood. Indeed, some would argue – like Robert Kiyosaki – that that the school system is predicated on the concept of the one right answer. [1] FM Alexander argued that the need to be right causes children to suffer unnecessarily. Referring to the parents, Alexander says:

“it occurs to very few of them to consider whether, in this process of “education” (i.e., in certain specific directions) the child’s fear reflexes will not be unduly and harmfully excited by the injunction that it must always try to “be right,” indeed, that it is almost a disgrace to be wrong;.” [2]

But if you’re doing something new, and especially if you’re not great at it yet, your chances of making mistakes is high. And that may only get worse once you’re in front of an audience.

Social anxiety in cockroaches

In the 1950s psychologist Robert Zajonc conducted some interesting research into how an audience affects us when we are engaged in tasks of varying difficulties. Though he later did use human subjects, Zajonc’s initial studies were done with cockroaches! He constructed a maze, in which the cockroaches had to scuttle from a lighted area towards the end of the maze where they would find their preferred dark enclosed space. Sometimes the maze was easy, and sometimes it was difficult. And sometimes the cockroaches in the maze had an audience of other cockroaches watching them. In both the cockroach experiments and later research with humans, a subject with an audience would complete the easy task faster. But when faced with a complex task – like a tricky maze – AND and audience, the subjects would go more slowly than if they were completing the complex task unobserved.

This was also found when psychologists studied pool players in the 1980s. Author Adam Alter explains:

Strong players, who sank 70 per cent of their shots while playing alone, made 80 per cent of their shots in the presence of four onlookers. Meanwhile, weaker players who made only 36 per cent of their shots alone, sank a lowly 25 per cent when observed. The stronger players were energised by the presence of onlookers, but the same audience distracted the already overloaded weaker players.[3]

Zajonc’s research – and the work on pool players – suggests that a phenomenon known as social inhibition is likely to cause you to make mistakes. In essence, your brain is so overloaded with dealing with the social pressure of having people watching that you’re more likely to foul up complex tasks. And if you were to add to that overloaded brain the conviction that being right is the only thing to be, you’re priming yourself for a truly lousy experience.

Avoiding stage fright, step 1: let go of being right

Particularly if you’re new to performing, you need to work hard to make sure that you won’t suffer from brain overload during the performance or presentation. One of the key ways you can do this is to accept that, because you are new to the experience, you WILL make mistakes. Like the inexperienced pool players, the likelihood is that you’ll lose some of your performance readiness under the gaze of an audience. So accept it. Embrace your inexperience, rather than judge yourself harshly if something goes awry.

Avoiding stage fright, step 2: know your stuff

From Zajonc’s research, and the research of those who followed him, we know that our response to an audience is partially dependent on whether we perceive what we’re about to do as easy or difficult. If we know the material well, or if we perceive a task to be easy, then the presence of an audience will enhance our ability to perform. If we don’t know our material or perceive the task to be difficult, then fear of failure will cause us to go more slowly or make more mistakes.

This means that knowing your material and being as fully in control of your process as possible is key to avoiding stage fright. If you know your material well, if you’ve made sure that – for example – you’ve got your presentation slides stored in a number of locations, that you have the right cables to attach your laptop to the venue projector, that your slide remote has fresh batteries, that you’ve chosen your outfit ahead of time… If you’ve controlled as many variables as possible, then you’re far more likely to perceive the task as easier. This means that you’ll also find it easier to keep a focus on the process of performing and presenting, not on the audience.

FM Alexander puts it like this:

the individual comes to rely upon his “means-whereby,” and does not become disturbed by wondering whether the activities concerned will be right or wrong. Why should he, seeing that the confidence with which he proceeds with his task is a confidence born of experiences, the majority of which are successful experiences unassociated with over-excited fear reflexes? [4]

So be prepared, accept your inexperience, and have a great time.

[1] Kiyosaki, R., If You Want to be Rich and Happy, Don’t go to School, Fairfield, Aslan, 1993.
[2] Alexander, FM, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.283.
[3] Alter, A., Drunk Tank Pink, London, Oneworld, 2013, p.92.
[4] Alexander, FM, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.342.

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

What’s the best way to handle fear? One step at a time.

Jen with her bike: she had to handle fear of hills and traffic

I rode my bike downhill on a traffic-laden major road in Bristol last Saturday. No big deal for many of you, I am sure. But it was a pretty big deal for me. I’m fairly new to cycling, and I’ve not been cycling on the road for very long at all. And it was a big deal for another reason: the hill. Because of experiences I had in childhood, the prospect of cycling down steeper inclines has been a bit of a hurdle for me. However, not only did I cycle on one of the busiest roads in Bristol, but I cycled down one of the bigger hills in Bristol, too.

So how did I get up the courage to do this? How did I handle fear and learn to do things that scared me?

Deliberate practice: the way to handle fear.

The answer is practice. I worked up to it (or down, depending on your point of view…). I spent a fair while cycling just on (flat) cycle paths in Bristol and Cardiff, learning to be comfortable on my little folding bike. Then I started cycling on quieter roads. When I felt okay on quiet roads I started using the busier roads, but at quiet times of day. Then I started cycling up and down hills on quieter roads…

Do you see the pattern here? I constructed a series of small steps that would enable me to build up my confidence, while all the time expanding the range of what I could accomplish. I also had some lessons early on that gave me some good professional advice, so that I knew the technical aspects of what I ought to be doing. And now I feel sufficiently comfortable to be able to make my way along steepish, busy roads in the centre of the city. Not bad going!

Deliberate practice in the performance arena

This is exactly the system that I use when I teach my courses on overcoming stage fright. I take a group of people who very often don’t even want to sit in front of a group, and through the delivery of some technical advice and a series of exercises I lead them, step by gentle step, to be comfortable giving off-the-cuff presentations or musical performances. And my students have the same experience as me: what they thought at the beginning of the course as being impossible, by the end of six short weeks becomes easy. They learn to handle fear in a constructive way.

This is the power of working in small steps. It is not for nothing that FM Alexander, the creator of the Alexander Technique, said that 

Confidence is born of success, not of failure, and our processes in education and in the general art of living must be based upon principles which will enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence[1]

Alexander is asking us to make certain that we construct for ourselves a pathway towards the goal we want to achieve. And we must make the steps in our pathway small, so that we can build confidence from each small success that we have.

Handling fear in three points

So if you have a goal you want to achieve, try to do these three things:

  • know what the goal is
  • construct a pathway towards your goal, with lots of small achievable steps
  • get professional advice on any technical aspects you need to make success easier (like cycling lessons!)

And if you’re interested in overcoming stage fright, be sure to sign up for my next course. I’ll be running it in person and via Skype before the end of the year!

[1] Alexander, FM., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY Irdeat 1997, p.384.

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)]

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

This brain has ditched positive thinking for reasoning and mental practice

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

Event-simulation vs positive thinking

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

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

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

FM Alexander – positive action, not positive thinking

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

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

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

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

Opening questions we can ask ourselves:

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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.

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!

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

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

It’s not just about the hours

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

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

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

Principles for overnight success: Analysis

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

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

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

Principles for overnight success: Evaluation

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Martin, op.cit.,  p.51.

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

Process oriented practice or product oriented practice?

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

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

Following the process: drawing what you see.

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

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

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

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

Product-oriented practice

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

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

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

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

Process oriented practice

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

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

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

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

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