Don’t copy me! – why imitation can be a poor improvement strategy

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Imitation is a powerful force in teaching – any music teacher or sports coach will agree. But is it a force for good? FM Alexander, creator of the Alexander Technique, clearly was not convinced of its efficacy. He even reportedly told his teacher trainees, “Don’t copy me!” So what’s the problem with imitation?

Imitation in practice

Last week I took my son, a budding classical guitarist, to see the guitar sensation Milos Karadaglic in concert. It was well worth it, particularly to see a musician working with such freedom and gracefulness of movement and expression.

My son was very impressed. He left the concert venue clutching a Milos CD and harbouring a determination to play as well as him. The next day he listened to the CD multiple times, and then got out his guitar to do some practice. And he carefully turned his footstool round the wrong way.

Now, if you don’t know anything about classical guitar, let me explain. The player rests their foot (usually the left) on a footstool to help hold the guitar. And it is usually positioned sloping towards the player. Milos had his footstool sloping away from him. My son wants to be just like Milos, so he turned his footstool around.

Now, it’s just a small example, but it demonstrates very clearly the transactions behind imitation.

Imitation truths

  1. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. We imitate the people we admire. We want to be just like them.
  2. Very often the things the make the imitated person great are not easily imitated. My son cannot instantly copy Milos’ work ethic, his years of practice. These things are not visible, and take time and discipline to copy. So the likelihood is that they won’t be. We copy what we can easily see, not what makes the great artist great.
  3. What we see are the idiosyncrasies and foibles, and these aren’t what made the person great (most of the time). FM Alexander put it like this:“Most of us are aware that if a pupil in some art is sent to watch a great artist… the pupil is almost invariably more impressed by some characteristics of the artist that may be classed as faults than by his ‘better parts’.
    … the characteristics may be faults which the genius of the particular artist enables him to defy. It is possible that the artist succeeds in spite of them rather than because of them.” (CCC, p.364)
    Was Glen Gould a great pianist because he slumped around on a low piano stool and grunted a lot? Or was it because he worked really hard? Obviously the latter. But the visual idiosyncrasies are easier to copy. Luckily for me and my son, Milos only turns his footstool around!

We are not the same as our heroes. This is another really important factor that makes imitation dangerous, according to FM Alexander. We tend to believe that if we see a teacher or a great artist do an activity in a particular way, that it is possible for us to copy them accurately. But FM says this is a delusion. (UoS, p.418) We are not the same as our teachers – we have subtly different physiques, different experiences, different ideas and beliefs. We are different psycho-physical beings. We could not copy our teachers exactly unless we were able to copy their entire general use of themselves!

Moving beyond imitation

So how are we to proceed? If we can’t copy our teachers, what can we do?
Well, I suggest we do what FM wanted his teacher trainees to do: watch closely what he did, and look to the reasons and principles behind why he was doing what he was doing. Once we understand the reasoning behind what our teachers and coaches do, we can have a go at applying it to our own practice.

In conclusion, here are the steps to follow:

  1. Make sure you understand clearly the goal of the activity.
  2. Make sure you understand the reasoning behind why your teacher or coach does the activity in the way they do.
  3. Attempt to apply this reasoning process in your own attempts at the activity.
  4. Get feedback from your teacher or coach on how well you are doing.

Give it a go, and let me know how it turns out.

*All quotes and page references are from the Irdeat complete edition of Alexander’s books. If you want more information on the books, please contact me.
Image by Luigi Diamanti, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Can you think yourself out of stage fright?

Stage fright is a funny beast. Because it has such a formidable physical dimension, we often fall into the trap of believing that it is primarily a physical phenomenon. But what if it isn’t? What if stage fright is primarily a thinking-based problem that is alleviated by thinking-based solutions?

Today, I want to explore how our levels of anxiety in different performance arenas are first and foremost dependent upon the decisions we make about how comfortable we are with that arena.

Malcolm Gladwell told a story in a recent New York Public Library interview about emotions, and about seeing his father in tears reading Dickens. He followed this with the tale of being taken to a movie by his father. (You can watch this whole interview via this page from the website Brain Pickings – the section I’m referring to starts at 13:35) They rarely went to movies. This one was a particularly sad picture about the Holocaust and the life of Corrie ten Boom. Everyone was crying, except Gladwell’s father. When asked why he wasn’t crying, Gladwell snr said, “It’s just fiction!”

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Clearly he didn’t think that Dickens was biography, so why the thoroughly un-teary response to the biopic of ten Boom? Because he had decided to value it differently. There was something about the written word, and the written words of Dickens in particular, that held a higher value for Gladwell snr. This was a choice that he had made.

Similarly, we can make choices about what things we value and what things we fear. More than one of my students has confirmed my own experience that performing as an actor was far less terrifying than performing as a musician. As an actor, they say (as I once did), the audience see the character. They don’t see YOU, so stage fright isn’t an issue. But this is just another decision.

One of my students is an actor who specialises in improvisation. He loves it because there is a clear framework and a set of rules that lead to a successful performance. He dislikes scripted theatre because it lacks these. One of my other students loves scripted theatre because it has a clear framework and a set of rules, and dislikes improvisation because it lacks these.

Partially, of course, these people like the thing they’re most accustomed to. But more than that, they like the thing that they have decided to like and invest time in. If you decide it, improvisation can be safe. If you decide it, musical performance can be safe. If you decide it, I imagine even stand-up comedy can feel safe. The point is, it’s all a decision.

Once I decided that the audience didn’t really see me even when I was playing music, stage fright vanished. I was completely happy about going onstage. I realised that the audience didn’t care about me particularly – they wanted to hear the music first and foremost. As long as I gave my attention to the music, the audience would be happy, and so would I. And it worked.

What would happen if you decided that the performance arena you think is unsafe and uncomfortable, is actually far more safe and comfortable than you have given credit for?

Why fear of competition shouldn’t faze performers

Are you afraid of performing? Whether it’s a concert, play, audition or after dinner speech, do you find yourself frozen up by the fear of what is to come?

Many people are afraid of the battle. To them, every performance, audition or job interview is a competition, and one that they are afraid of losing. The audience/panel are the enemy, the competitor that they must fight. And the fear of competition seems almost all consuming. Some of my students have described it this way:

  • Fighting the audience – fight to keep the audience engaged and with you.
  • Fighting the panel – battling to keep them looking at you as a real contender.
  • Fighting the competitor, and fighting oneself –  struggling to retain the self belief to keep competing.

I want to share with you something I’ve been reading that threw a lot of light on the fear of competition issue. I’ve got two main points that I hope will set you thinking anew about it. My fondest wish is that you’ll come the the conclusion that fear of competition is a mental trick that you can escape – if you want to.

 

1. Fear of competition is a state of mind.

I love watching snooker, and especially love watching Ronnie O’Sullivan. I’ve often wondered what goes through a player’s mind, especially at the beginning of a tight match where the scores remain even, and one player does not gain immediate dominance over the other.

Do you think this would be stressful, or do you think it would be fun?

Many people might imagine that a player would find it stressful. But that isn’t what Ronnie O’Sullivan describes in his most recent book, Running.

I went bang! Long red. Eighty. He went bang! Long red. Eighty. I went bang! Long red. One hundred. He went bang! Seventy. And I thought, 2-2, we’re having a row here, this is good! I’m enjoying this.*

What Ronnie is describing is a joy in the heat of battle. If the other player is matching him frame for frame, he relishes it. He describes a joy in being able to hold his own and gradually overcome another player who is also playing at the height of his powers. For Ronnie, when he is at his best, the battle isn’t something to run away from. It is, rather, something to engage in and enjoy.

Fear of competition is a state of mind, a “trifling habit of thought” (FM Alexander’s words there**) that at some point we have taken on. But it is just a state of mind, and states of mind can be changed.

2. It isn’t really a battle.

The second point is that most performances, most presentations, most auditions and job interviews even, are not battles. They are not a competitive sport, and the audience/interview panel are not your competitors. They are not your enemy. You are not fighting them.

The audience, at heart, wants to be entertained.

The business audience, at heart, wants to get out of the room alive. If they enjoy their time, they are thrilled.

The audition panel just wants to cast the role. They want you to be the one.

The interview panel just wants you to be the right candidate.

They aren’t your competitors. Unless you’re in a particularly extreme set of circumstances, they’re on your side. So what is there to stop you just getting on and enjoying being with them?

 

*Ronnie O’Sullivan (with Simon Hattenstone), Running, Orion, 2013, p.71.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT edition, p.52.

Self criticism while performing – and how to avoid it

Do you struggle with self criticism as a performer? Me too. I’m telling this little story about my own self criticism, partly so that you can all feel a little better by having a laugh at me, and partly to make a point about why we don’t need to do it in the first place!

The self criticism tango

Just recently my group Pink Noise played a concert at a small church in Somerset. We finished our programme with a lovely arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion. I play the lead line. This is a fairly accurate rendition of my thoughts as I play the first phrase.

Will the high D sound? Please God, don’t let it crack!
Brilliant! But it sounds so thin. Argh!
Argh! Relax those fingers!
The note’s so boring. Finger vibrato!
Argh! Not enough finger vibrato!
Argh! Too much finger vibrato!
Argh! Finger vibrato isn’t even enough!
Running out of air – gotta breathe…
I hope I didn’t sound like an asthmatic walrus…
I never get the articulation right there…
Phew – made it!

And that’s just the first phrase!

It feels like I never do the piece justice, that I never manage to play it as cleanly and smoothly as it deserves. Frankly, I always feel like I struggle with it, and wonder why the others in the group don’t take the part away from me.

That’s how it feels. And that’s how I’d see it, if one of our group hadn’t made a video recording of the performance. I finally got round to watching it. And what did I find?

The awful truth… isn’t that bad

Actually, it’s okay. I was pleasantly surprised. There are things to work on for us as an ensemble (we haven’t performed this piece very often yet), but it holds up. And my lead line isn’t nearly as bad as it sounded in my head. I hesitate to say it, but it’s really quite decent.

FM Alexander warned us all decades ago that our feelings aren’t a reliable guide to anything much. Anyone who has had an Alexander Technique lesson will have seen or experienced a session in which they are convinced they’re about to fall over backwards, only to be told they’re standing perfectly straight. Or that when they think they’re turning their head, they’re actually turning at their waist. Or that when they think they’re bending their knees, they’re just not! What we think we’re doing is very often not what the outside world sees.

What I love about watching videos of my performances is that I get to see a view from outside my own head. I get to listen, maybe not to a studio quality recording, but at least to something that is outside of me and the processes I’m engaged in to make the sound. I get to experience what the audience might experience.

The lessons for today?

  • Teachers aren’t perfect. Thank goodness. That’s why we understand the struggles our students go through.
  • If you’re a performer, or are having to give some sort of speech or presentation, find a way to get objective feedback. Video yourself. Get a person you trust to watch you. Do what Alexander did and look at yourself in the mirror, if you can bear to. Find some means where you can evaluate your own performance, and preferably AFTER you’ve done it, not DURING. During, you should be far too busy doing it to evaluate anything.
  • And finally, if you’re having a thoughtfest of self criticism like the one I wrote out, be kind to yourself. Notice that you’re doing it, then get back to the job of playing/performing. Evaluation comes later.

How do good artists get so good? The secret of going from good to great performance.

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How do really great performers get so good? And can we emulate them in any degree at all? Is it, in short, possible to go from good to great performance?

Last weekend I had the immense pleasure of seeing my childhood hero, recorder player Michala Petri, perform with lutenist Lars Hannibal here in Bristol. At the end of a truly sparkling first half, the audience spilled out of the performance space and spent the interval sipping wine and wondering at what we’d just seen. A couple of things really stood out for us:

  • She played the entire first half from memory.
  • She barely moved anything other than her fingers (and they moved very fast indeed!), and yet was utterly mesmerising.

And the most common question I heard during the interval? “How does she DO that?!”

 

How she does it, step 1: Practice

Michala Petri has been performing for around 40 years – she gave her first concert at age 11. She’s pretty experienced. She’s done a lot of hours in the practice room.

So how does she remember all that music? She’s practised it! I suspect that she’s played some of those works for at least 20 years. After that time, I suspect that memorising isn’t really an issue.

It also strikes me that Ms Petri’s experience of playing those pieces of music is going to be completely different to the experience I have when/if I play them. Her relationship with the music goes far beyond needing to know what note or phrase is coming next. Through familiarity and close study, she has been able to cultivate such an in-depth knowledge of each piece that even the most difficult piece of Bach has a clear sense of line and purpose.

Put more simply, what takes Ms Petri from good to great performance is not remembering the notes, but her ability to move to a completely different level of relationship with the notes as part of a holistic structure.*

What would happen if we, whatever our field of expertise, were able to do sufficient work that our next performance moved to the level beyond ‘remembering the notes’?

 

How she does it, step 2: Concentration

More than just knowing the piece, however, Ms Petri is able to communicate her ideas clearly to the audience. She does this by maintaining an absolute focus on what she needs to do to communicate. As FM Alexander said,

We must cultivate, in brief, the deliberate habit of taking up every occupation with the whole mind, with a living desire to carry each action through to a successful accomplishment, a desire which necessitates bringing into play every faculty of the attention. By use this power develops…**

Concentration is the ability to stick with the process you’ve designed, and not to allow your focus to waver. What would happen if you brought that level of attention to your next presentation or performance?

 

How she does it, step 3: do only what you have to

Because Ms Petri has done the practice and the study, because she has lived with each piece of music for a long time, she has developed clear ideas about what she needs to do to communicate the piece to the audience. So she does those things.

And only those things.

That’s why she doesn’t move much – she doesn’t need to. Her fingers and her lungs are doing most of the physical work. Any other movement would run the risk of disturbing them, so she doesn’t indulge in any. This isn’t to say that she looked rooted to the spot. She could have moved as much as she wanted. She just didn’t want to.

What would happen if, in your next performance or presentation, you did only what you believed necessary to achieve your purpose?

Going from good to great performance isn’t without effort, but the steps are clear. Do the work and the study. Take it up with your whole mind, both in rehearsal and in performance. And only do what you need to do.

Simple steps. A world of experimentation and improvement awaits.

 

* Interestingly, the only times she resorted to sheet music were when she was playing very new works that had only been written a couple of years previously. She’d only known them for a couple of years – they hadn’t reached the level of knowledge for playing from memory yet!
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT complete edition, pp.66-67.
Picture of Michala Petri and Lars Hannibal by Tom Barnard.

Do they really hate you? Misunderstanding audience reaction.

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When you perform, are you concerned about audience reaction? Perhaps you keep half an eye or ear on the audience as you perform. Do you try to gauge how they’re liking your performance? How would you feel if, heaven forbid, someone should frown or even walk out while you’re performing?

It is a fairly common theme when I work with people with performance anxiety that their tension levels increase through fear of negative audience reaction. Bluntly, they are stressed out by the thought of the audience hating them, or at the very least disliking what they’re doing.

But if they’re frowning, do they really hate you? Or are you perhaps misunderstanding the audience reaction?

This was really brought home to me when one of my students auditioned for the full-time acting course at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.* He came out disconsolate, saying that one of the panel had spent the entire audition staring at him, her head resting on her hands. “She looked like she hated me,” he said. “My audition was terrible. I’ll never get the place.”

Luckily, I was also friends with another member of the panel, who told me the story of what happened after my student had left the room. The supposedly grumpy panel member had turned to the other auditioners, fixed them with just as intense a stare as she had the young student, and said, “he’s absolutely marvellous!”

My student looked at the panel member and was convinced she hated him. And it just wasn’t true. So how did my student get it so wrong? How did he so misjudge the audience reaction?

1. You can’t know what’s in their heads.

What a person is thinking is private information. You can’t access it directly. You can make guesses based on available (public) information, like their facial expressions. But your guesses are still just guesses, and while they might often be accurate, under stress your ability to make accurate guesses might be severely compromised. If someone in the front row has a massive frown on their face, you have no evidence that they don’t like you. Maybe they always look like that!

2. The psycho-physical truth

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

This is one of my favourite quotes from FM Alexander, because it so neatly sums up the human condition. We think and act according to our belief structures, whatever those may be. And so if we come across new information or new experiences that require decoding, we will do it according to what we already believe to be the truth about the way the world works.

I ran across a lovely story that speaks to this. The author recounted how the youthful babysitter he had hired looked in wonderment at his (slightly old-fashioned!) corded kitchen phone. “Mr Hunt, what a wonderful idea,” she said, “to tie up your phone so that people won’t walk away with it. Just like the pens at the bank.”***

The babysitter had only experienced cordless phones, and so created an explanation for what she was seeing based on her beliefs and previous experience. We do this all the time. But just like the babysitter, our explanations may be completely off target!

If we’re in a high pressure situation, our systems are pumped with adrenalin. This makes changes to the way we are thinking. And if we’re accustomed to thinking of performing as unpleasant and we’re already looking on the negative side of things, then we will prioritise anything we see that confirms our negative viewpoint, and discount any contradictory (positive) information.

You can’t know how other people are taking things. And it isn’t your business anyway. Your job is to deliver your content in as truthful, sincere and efficient a way as you can. Watching the audience to see how much they like/hate you just distracts from that. Be convinced of the worth of your content and your process, and keep delivering.

 

* This is a brilliant college. I know I’m biased, but if you live in the UK and are thinking of studying in the fields of music or acting, you simply must investigate Royal Welsh.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.304.
*** Andy Hunt, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, Pragmatic Bookshelf 2008, p.130.
Image by Freddie Pena, Flickr Creative Commons

Are introversion and performing success mutually exclusive?

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Are introversion and performing success mutually exclusive? Can you be a good communicator if you’re an introvert?

I work a lot with people who have stage fright issues, and I get asked this question a lot. I suspect most of the students who attend my presentation courses would class themselves as introverts, and they frequently believe that their quiet nature is fundamental to their not being comfortable in front of an audience.

Can this be true? Can it really be the case that introversion and performing just don’t go together successfully?

I’ve been doing some personal development reading lately. One of the books I’m reading suggested doing some online personality tests, in order to help me discover how I like to learn and what sorts of environments/contexts would be helpful or harmful to me learning most effectively. So I did a spot of googling and found an online MBTI style test. If you don’t know these, they rank you on a continuum in four different areas, the first of which is introversion vs extraversion.

So how did I do? I came out at 89% introverted, and I think I only came out that low because I bent the truth on a couple of questions.
Suffice it to say, if you’re looking for an illustration of introversion for your pictorial dictionary, I’d be a fantastic candidate. When a friend recently told me about how prior commitments meant he wouldn’t be able to attend a party, I felt relief even though it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my invitation, and I had no connection to the event at all. THAT’S how introverted I am.
But do I combine introversion and performing? Can I perform in front of audiences? You bet! So how do I manage this? How is it that I can be very decidedly one of life’s quiet people, and yet spend much of my working life having a lot of fun working with groups, or playing my recorder in front of audiences? I follow these three lessons from FM Alexander, originator of the Alexander Technique:

1. Get lots of practice.

When FM Alexander was trying to solve the mental (and resulting physical) misdirections that caused his vocal problems, he realised that part of the solution was practicing his new directions “very many times”. Bluntly, if you want to do anything decently, you need to do it with some degree of deliberateness and consistency. Here is Susan Cain, author of Quiet, on her preparations for her book launch:

“my job is to be out here … talking about introversion. And that’s a lot harder for me, because as honored as I am to be here with all of you right now, this is not my natural milieu. So I prepared for moments like these as best I could. I spent the last year practicing public speaking every chance I could get. And I call this my “year of speaking dangerously.”  And that actually helped a lot.”

 

2. Speak from your passion.

Why did Susan Cain want to improve her public communication skills? Because she had a subject she was passionate about, and she wanted as many people to know about it as possible: “But I’ll tell you, what helps even more is my sense, my belief, my hope that when it comes to our attitudes to introversion and to quiet and to solitude, we truly are poised on the brink on dramatic change. “

If you have a passion for your topic, you are more prepared to go outside your comfort zone in order to communicate it. In the same way, FM Alexander’s passion for acting meant that he was prepared to do immense amounts of work and suffer innumerable setbacks when trying to fix his vocal problems.

 

3. Communicate in the way that best suits you and your purpose.

I’m going to say something controversial. The audience don’t care about you. (well, maybe they do if they’re your family, or if you’re some kind of celebrity – there’s exceptions to every rule…) Apart from the odd exception, it’s true. The audience only care about you, as such, if you make yourself their issue. Otherwise, they just want to hear what you’ve got to say/play/perform. They care that you do it authentically, but otherwise they primarily want the content.

This is tremendously freeing. It means that you can be authentically nervous. You can be authentically quiet, or authentically loud. How it is said doesn’t matter nearly so much as that it is said truthfully and with integrity. If you want to see this in action, just take a look at Susan Cain, or JK Rowling. They get their message across brilliantly, and both of them are totally their quiet selves.

The key is to do only what you have to do in order to achieve your goals – a key Alexander Technique principle. Pretending to be someone else is unnecessary effort, and does nobody any good.

A quiet person can command respect and attention. A shy person can be a performer. A nervous person can get their point across. An introvert can be a truly great public speaker or performer. All it takes is some attention to principle, and a modicum of consistent, deliberate practice.

 

Image by Salvatore Vuono, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Revealed at last: 2 liberating secrets about being a newbie (at anything).

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Secret number 1: Newbies are allowed to ‘suck’

Here is the liberating truth. If you’re a newbie, you’re allowed to ‘suck’. You are allowed to be joyfully, liberatingly bad at the activity you’re trying.

Of course, most of us don’t give ourselves this pleasure. Instead, we expect ourselves to be good at this new thing. Not just passable, you’ll notice. We want to be good.

And this is just a little bit crazy.

Think about it. You’re walking onto a tennis court for the first time in your life. You’ve seen it played, but you’ve never picked up a racquet before. You don’t know how to hit the ball, don’t know how to serve. Is it reasonable, then, to expect yourself to be able to hit backhand winners down the line in the style of Roger Federer? Probably not!

But this is what we so frequently do. I clearly remember giving up chess at age 7 after my first ever attempt at a game because I wasn’t instantly successful. I can think of other occasions where I’ve seen children and adults make similar decisions.

Can you think of a time when you’ve done something similar?

FM Alexander had just such an experience when he was trying to find a way of undoing the vocal hoarseness that was threatening his acting career. He thought that just because he’d used his vocal tract in a certain way for a prolonged period, he’d be able to change the way he used it and do the new thing just as accurately, just as easily. But it simply wasn’t the case.

Alexander realised that he wasn’t the only one to make this error, and named the phenomenon a universal delusion:

because we are able to do what we “will to do” in acts that are habitual and involve familiar sensory experiences, we shall be equally successful in doing what we “will to do” in acts which are contrary to our habit and therefore involve sensory experiences that are unfamiliar. *

Just because I can play tennis does not mean I can play badminton. Just because I can drive a car, I shouldn’t expect to be able to ride a bicycle. Just because I can play recorder to a fairly decent standard, I should NOT expect to be near-instantly performance standard on an oboe – I would almost certainly sound like I was strangling a duck.

And that would be okay, because I’d be new at it!

 

Secret number 2: you might be a newbie and not even realise it!

Sometimes we are really bad at recognising that we are doing a new activity. We can be fooled into thinking it’s just the same thing as something else we do successfully, when in fact it is a different activity, involving different techniques and a totally different means of approach.

I realised the full force of this the first time I picked up a renaissance recorder and tried to play some really tricky consort music with it. Yes, it’s a recorder. But it has subtly different fingerings, a different bore requiring different breathe pressure, and a different orientation of arm joints to reach the holes comfortably. It is a different activity.

This principle also cropped up just the other week in the presentation skills class I’m teaching at the moment. It is tempting to think that because we all speak to each other all the time quite successfully, that doing a presentation or a speech is just an extension of the speaking we do all the time. But it isn’t.

Just because we can all speak DOES NOT MEAN that we know how to deliver a presentation to a group of people. Talking to friends and giving a work presentation both involve talking, it is true. But the presentation isn’t the same activity. It is a different skill involving different technical aspects and completely different levels of preparation. And if a person goes into a presentation not realising that it’s a new activity and then has a bad experience, it can sow the seeds of anxiety which could develop into full-blown stage fright. And all because they’d miscategorised the presentation as something that they knew how to do.

Before you do that activity, ask yourself:

  • Do I really know what I’m doing, or are there enough ‘uncharted’ aspects to make this a new experience?
  • Have I prepared sufficiently?
  • Am I okay with not being outstanding at this activity? Bluntly, am I okay with the idea of failing?

This isn’t about reducing standards, nor is it about settling for average. This is about recognising that everybody has to start somewhere. If you give yourself the luxury of mistakes and stuff-ups, you’ll be approaching whatever it is you’re learning with an unstressed, free and creative state of mind. And this, in turn, will give you the firm foundation to learn and progress.

 

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.417.
Image by Qrodo photos (Flickr creative commons)

Beat performance plateaus by changing point of view

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Performance plateau?

Are you experiencing a point of difficulty in one of your hobbies or work activities? Perhaps you can’t quite hit that tennis forehand the way you’d like, or nail that top G reliably? Possibly you’ve always thought the problem was intractable, or that you’d reached a ceiling on your abilities.

But have you considered that the reason why you’ve plateaued could be because you’re getting in your own way?

Performance plateau: the young swimmer

I had a taste of this from my son the other day. On the way home from school, he said he didn’t like swimming any more. I asked him why. He said it was because the teacher kept telling him to put his head in the water while swimming freestyle lengths. “But I do put my head in the water!” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes! … Some of the time…” he said, rather less vehemently.
“Okay. When do you put your head in the water?”
“I put it in for a bit, then I lift it up to breathe,” he replied.
“Ah. Is that what the teacher wants you to do to breathe?”
“Well, no. But it’s the way I do it.”
“Do you think the teacher would stop telling you off if you did what she asked?”
“Yes,” my son said. “But I want to do it my way.”

 

“My way” – Performance plateaus as a state of mind

And there you have it in a nutshell.

Most of us, when we go about the activities that make up our day-to-day lives, have ways that we like to do them. The ways we choose are based on our personal preferences, our experiences, and our beliefs about the right way to go about things.

But what if we’re wrong? What if our way is not the best way? What if our way of doing things is, in fact, the cause of the performance plateau that we’re experiencing?

FM Alexander was able to write that, after 20 years of teaching experience, he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.”*

Even worse than this, Alexander goes on to say that if a person has a very fixed idea of “their way” of doing things, they are likely to go on trying to do things “their way” even after the teacher has demonstrated that their way can’t be relied upon! My son, for example, knows that his swimming teacher is correct, and that his way of breathing is not helping him. But no amount of the teacher yelling at him is going to make him stop!

So what will?

 

A change of mind as the key to breaking performance plateaus

My son needs to change his mind. Currently he is held back by, to borrow Alexander’s phrase, his “fixed and unreasoning conception” about what he needs to do to breathe while swimming freestyle. He will need, in short, to give up his desire to feel right, in order to do the thing that will increase effectiveness.

 

Here are the steps to take:

  • A touch of honesty. Are you like my son – do you secretly know what is holding you back?
  • Thinking about teacher/mentor feedback. Are you consistently being given the same criticisms in feedback? Can you recognise these criticisms in your own performance?
  • Listening to teacher/mentor advice. Are you being given advice that you’re not following? Maybe you could have a go at trying it, if only to prove your teacher wrong!
  • Loosen up and be prepared to feel ‘wrong’. Sometimes, letting go of what seems ‘right’ is the only way forward. Loosen your grip, and see what happens!

Performance plateaus are not a lot of fun. Even though it might be scary, why not try tearing up the rule book you’ve got in your head, and have a go at the thing that feels ‘wrong’? And let me know how it turns out.

 

*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT edition, p.294.
Image by Tup Wanders, flickr creative commons.

Performance as process, not product

Recorders are where I learn about performance as process

When preparing to perform, do you view the performance as process, or as an end to be gained?

It has struck me recently that it is very tempting to think of an upcoming performance in the following way:

  • The performance is on x date
  • I shall work on the process of learning the music/lines, experimenting with interpretation, and exploring the music… until the date of x.
  • On x date, I will perform the piece.

In other words, I think it’s very easy for actors and musicians to go very happily through the process of rehearsing, learning, experimenting and exploring – until the performance. Then it can be every so tempting to believe that the process that led you to that point is over. ‘I mean, I’m performing now, I don’t have time for all that exploration stuff!’

Speaking for myself, I know that I have often fallen into the trap of thinking of the actual performance as an end point. I have been very happy to go through a process involving thinking and learning about the music/script during rehearsals, but with the view that I am doing so in order to have a completed product to put in front of the audience at opening night.

But what if the performance isn’t an end point or anything to be gained/achieved?

What if it is just another part of the process?

In fact, what if the performance is the same process?

When I teach actors or singers, I am often asked to help out with improving a monologue or a solo; often the performer says they are having trouble with nerves or concentration. For example, if I am helping a young actor, I will watch them perform a scene, and often  proceed as part of my lesson design to ask them some basic questions: Who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Where are you going? Who are you talking to? After answering these questions, frequently the scene improves greatly without the need for any Alexander Technique hands-on work. But why?

Simple. By asking the questions, I have reminded the actor that performance is process. I have reminded them of the work that they did in rehearsal. To answer my questions, the actor has to recall both the content and the quality of thought and concentration that was needed when the answers were first created. The answers are, in effect, recreated. And so when the actor performs the scene, they have placed themselves in the creative process that enables them to work moment by moment, line by line.

This was exactly the problem that FM Alexander discovered when he was trying to find a solution to his vocal problems. He had formulated a new plan for how to use his mechanisms (his body!) in speaking, and had practiced and practiced. But he realised that, at the critical moment of going to speak, he threw it away and reverted to his older manner of use. It was only when FM found a way of continuing to think about the process he had designed up to and through the critical moment of beginning to speak, that he began to experience sustained improvement.*

So how do we as performers achieve similar sustained improvement?

  1. Remember that the performance isn’t the end point. It’s just another stage along a journey. If you’re an actor, the likelihood is that you’ll be performing the same words again the following night. If you’re a musician, you’ll have that piece of music in your repertoire for a long time. Play the long game.
  2. To play the long game, set goals for yourself that aren’t related to that particular performance. For example, for my next performance with my group Pink Noise, because we are playing a piece we know fairly well, my goal is to listen more to my colleagues and match intonations more closely.
  3. If you’re an actor, keep working on those basic questions: who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Keep looking at the script. Sometimes it will surprise you, and you’ll find something that you’ve never noticed before!

Most importantly, keep remembering that the performance is no end point. When we view performance as process, we stay in tune with our words and music, we stay in the present moment, and we will be so busy that we’ll have no time for nerves! Try it, and let me know how it turns out.

 

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.428.