Conquer stage fright by changing point of view

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Can you conquer stage fright by changing point of view? Or are the physical sensations of nervousness always going to get to you in the end? This is my story of how I came to realise that between physical sensations and thought patterns, thought patterns are the more destructive agent when it comes to performance anxiety.

When I was young, everyone was certain I was going to be a musician. I played flute and recorder. Recorder was my true love of the two instruments (and still is). I played in the school recorder ensembles and bands. I was always off to some rehearsal or another. I was pretty good – in spite of the fact that I never learned how to practice effectively – and was keen to go to a music school in the Netherlands to further my recorder career.*

So why didn’t I go? How did I end up where I am today?

I couldn’t cope with the nerves. Particularly before solos, my heart would race, my hands and knees would shake, my blood would pump so loudly in my ears that I could barely hear. But worse than that were the fears of getting things wrong, of disappointing people. I spent much of my time before every performance in the grip of a forecast of doom. I was convinced that my performance had to be note perfect, and that anything less was a failure.

I quit. There’s only so long that anyone can take that sort of pressure. At that time, in that place, I couldn’t conquer stage fright. It conquered me.

When I say I quit, I need to be more precise. I quit music. I didn’t quit performing. When I went to university, in addition to all the sensible courses, I enrolled in Theatre Studies for a bit of fun. It became my passion.

I loved the academic approach to theatre, but if I’m honest, I loved the acting and directing the most. And I never suffered stage fright. In fact, I didn’t really experience negative nervousness at all. Not once.

Did I feel my heart go faster before I went onstage? Yup. If anything, it went even faster. I can remember waiting backstage before one performance and wondering what the fastest heartrate recorded might be, as I thought mine at that moment probably rivalled it!

Did my hands and my knees shake? Yes. Definitely yes. When I was in Samuel Beckett’s Play, in which the three actors are encased in urns, mine could be seen vibrating!

But it never bothered me. I was having too much fun.

Now I look back and I can see that, logically, there is little difference between standing in front of an audience wearing a fake beard and carrying a sword, to standing in front of an audience with a recorder mouthpiece between my lips. But at the time, the rules and stories I told myself about each activity were very different.

Music = getting it right, being perfect, being in control, trying to block out the audience (who were ‘against’ me and judging me), getting things wrong and beating myself up for failing

Theatre = experimenting, having fun, having a sort of conversation/interplay with the audience, getting stuff wrong and trying to find a nifty way out of trouble

 

Some of the ideas within these categories may have been picked up from other people and places, but I was the one who held them together and believed them. I created paradigms that made one activity (music) a kind of living hell, and the other (theatre) a paradise of playtime. If FM Alexander had been around to see me, he would have said that he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are a major part of [her] difficulties.” **

One of the unexpected joys of studying the Alexander Technique for me was that the “mental rigidity” (FM’s words) that had fossilised my ideas about music was broken up, and my fear of playing or singing in front of audiences conquered.***

So if you want to conquer stage fright, have you considered whether your ideas and attitudes about the activity of performing might be a significant part of your difficulties? Is there a similar activity that causes you no problems at all? What is the rule that makes the difference?

And it isn’t just stage fright that can be helped by looking at hidden rules and preconceptions. Go hunting, and you may be surprised what ideas you have that rule the way you operate/behave in everyday activities.

Yes, we can conquer stage fright. And sometimes looking at how we think is the first step on the path.

* The Netherlands is one of the major centres of recorder teaching, and early music in general.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.294.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT edition, p.123.
Photo of Jen in a fake beard as Face in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, 1993. Photo by Rex Bunn.

“I’m not used to this” – how careful practice overcomes stage fright

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Is stage fright normal, instinctive, and something you are born with? Or is it a learned, rules-based set of behaviours? And if this is so, can we learn new rules, so that practice overcomes stage fright?

This is an argument that occupies a lot of my working hours, because many of my students would prefer to believe that stage fright is, if not wholly, then certainly almost entirely an instinctive thing that one is born with. I, on the other hand, have come to believe that stage fright is learned. Though some people may be more predisposed than others, stage fright is largely a rules-based set of behaviours.

Why do I believe this? Because I keep encountering evidence that seems to suggest that rules play a determining role in stage fright. This week, for example, while driving through town I was lucky enough to catch a radio broadcast of one of the BBC Proms, in which the Camerata Nordica played a  gorgeous selection of British music by Britten, Tippett, and Walton. The most fascinating section of the concert for me (from a professional perspective) was when a viola player from the Camerata Nordica, Catherine Bullock, came forward to play the solo part in a late Britten work called Lachrymae. She was interviewed by BBC presenter Clemency Burton-Hill prior to performing, and was described as “inching towards the front of the stage.”

This is a portion of the short interview that followed:

Burton-Hill: What’s it like to step out of the orchestra and come to the front of the stage, as it were?
Bullock: Well obviously it’s quite scary. [laughs nervously] I’m an orchestral musician by trade, I’m not used to this.*

I was so astonished I had to stop the car! Ms Bullock is an accomplished, experienced musician. Her performance of the work following the interview was one of great depth and beauty. She has been onstage as a performer many, many times. And yet she was very nervous. Why?

Ms Bullock gives us the answer: she is an orchestral musician by trade. She is accustomed to being part of an ensemble, and so even though it is still performing, because she is used to doing it, it doesn’t bother her unduly. Being a soloist, on the other hand, is not something she is accustomed to, and it therefore is a cause for concern and worry. Put simply, she has a belief (borne of experience) that ensemble playing is normal, but solo playing is not. She has not had sufficient experience to describe herself as a practiced soloist.

I see this frequently with my students when they are faced with performing in a sphere they are not used to. A person used to teaching classes of teenagers is nervous about giving an after-dinner speech. An accomplished speaker is terrified of his first choir performance. An actor who specialises in improv experiences nerves doing a scripted play. I’m sure you have your own version of this.

So how do we deal with it? How do we ensure our nerves and our beliefs about what is normal don’t get the better of us?

  1. Accept that nerves are normal. When we do something out of our comfort zone, nerves are normal. That’s our primitive lizard brain preparing us to fight or flee. Typically, if we just accept that some nerves will happen, the extent and duration of the nerves aren’t as long.
  2. Knowledge is power. Knowing that we are being tripped up because we are doing something a little different is helpful. But knowing that, logically, it isn’t that different a situation to our comfort zone also helps.
  3. Practice overcomes stage fright. How did we end up with a comfort zone, whether it be speaking, teaching, or improv? Typically, by just getting on and doing it! The first time we try anything, we are likely to feel fear. The more familiar we are with an activity, and the more times we have success, the less stressful we are likely to find it.
    So if you are about to do something new, like performing your first solo, find a nice small friendly audience to play to first. They’ll enjoy it, and you’ll get some valuable experience under your belt. FM Alexander advised teachers of his work to set up for students a series of situations or a “a process which ensures that the pupil’s experiences will be, with rare exceptions, satisfactory experiences, which make for confidence.”**

Doing activities outside of our usual sphere is likely to be unsettling, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly frightening. If we take care of ourselves, we can rise to the challenge with enthusiasm, and succeed magnificently.

 

* Taken from http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b039c5f6/Afternoon_on_3_Proms_2013_Repeats_PSM_5_Camerata_Nordica/#programme-info, accessed 5 September 2013. It should remain available to listen to for a few more days, but only for UK residents, I fear…
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.339.
Image by Tina Phillips, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Trust Gap: why we never quite feel performance ready

This is the fifth part of a short series on how to go about pushing your comfort zone and trying new stuff. Week 1 was about why it’s a good idea to leave your comfort zone. In week 2 we explored how our fear of getting it wrong can hold us back, and how to move past it. Week 3 was all about starting from where you are instead of waiting for perfect timing or conditions. Last week was about finding and practicing all the elements that will make up your activity.
And this week? We stare into the depths of the trust gap!

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I’ve experienced it as a musician. I’ve experienced it as an actor and workshop leader. I certainly experienced it as a newbie runner. I bet you’ve probably experienced it too. The gnawing fear – just as you’re about to start the performance/talk/whatever – that you’re not quite performance ready.

You’ve practiced. Golly, you’ve practiced. You’ve worked hard on what you’re about to do. But at that moment, that critical moment as you move from not doing into doing, you experience a particular kind of fear.

I don’t know how this is going to turn out.

And sometimes that feeling is stronger than at other times. In my own experience, I have felt least worried about being performance ready when I’m doing something I do a lot. When I run Alexander Technique workshops, for example, the uncertainty is only momentary. And it doesn’t bother me much when I go onstage with my recorder quintet.

But when I’m doing something that is new, or when I’m doing something familiar but in a new context, I notice that the uncertainty over being performance ready is much stronger. For example, in the final week before the Bristol 10k, every training run was plagued with recurring thoughts along the lines of ‘Am I ready?’ or ‘Will I be able to make it?’ And I know a lot of people get very concerned when they start having the ‘performance ready’ jitters. They take it as a sign of something bad. I have worked with a lot of young actors, and they almost invariably think it’s a bad sign.

It’s not a bad sign.

It’s normal.

The point is, whenever you are about to go into an activity, whether it is running or acting or playing a musical instrument or hitting a tennis ball or picking up a cup of tea… Ultimately, you never know quite how it is going to turn out. Pretty much all singers will tell you that they can sing the same song, even in the same venue at pretty much the same time of day, and it will be different every time. Same with tennis balls and cups of tea.

You can do the preparation. You can get yourself to a very high standard of performance readiness. But you will never know quite how it will turn out. There will always be a chasm between preparation and performance. Practice can make the chasm smaller, but you will always need to make the jump.

And that’s the fun. That’s where the magic happens!

But it’s also where the fear happens. Because we worry about it going all wrong. We don’t want to feel the pain of failure, so we are tempted to do more than we need to in order to feel good. We are tempted, in short, to move beyond our training and lost the very sense of being performance ready that we fought so hard to attain.

This is the way FM Alexander put it:

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.*

The chasm between ‘performance ready’ and performance is just a trust gap. If we trust in our preparation, we will be fine.

What comfort zones are you preparing to leave? Are you ‘performance ready’? And will you maintain the trust in your hard work and planning?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.427.
Image by federico stevanin, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Feeling right, or having success… Which will you choose?

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I have been having a real battle in my tennis lessons lately. My struggle is with my backhand. My teacher has given me very clear instructions on the technique of how to hit a good backhand stroke. When I follow her instructions, I have success.

But do I always follow her instructions?

Nup.

Because, you see, sometimes I decide that I know better. The technique that she has taught me works… but it doesn’t feel right. It feels, well, odd, and new, and… Wrong, frankly. And because it doesn’t feel right, more often than not I decide to go my own way, and do what feels right to me.

And the resulting shot stinks.

But it isn’t just me that has this experience. One of my students recently had a very clear choice between walking in the way that she had decided was most efficient and anatomically correct (but which made her feel like she was sticking her rear end out like a duck), or walking in her usual way and putting up with her lower back aching.

According to FM Alexander, it all comes down to a simple choice.* When I play tennis, I can either go about things in my old usual way and get the same crummy results that I always have, or I can actually listen to my teacher and wholeheartedly follow her instructions. My student can walk in the old achey way, or put her trust in the new way she has decided is best for her purpose.

Even when it feels odd, or wrong.
Even when it feels uncomfortable.
Even when I think I probably look like an idiot.
Even if she feels like a duck.

So last week I challenged you to pick an activity and think about what you would actually need to do to complete the activity. This week my challenge to you is to keep refining your plan in odd moments through the day, but to go one step further. Every so often, maybe once a day, put your plan into action. It may feel great. It may feel odd. It might not feel of anything at all. Just give it a go, and let me know how you get on.

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT complete edition, p.299f.
Image by Tina Phillips www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Losing “I can’t” – the importance of mental attitude in performance

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When I teach Alexander Technique, I typically encourage students to come in with a activity they’d like to work on. It could be anything from sitting, to running, to juggling, or to using the pedal on a sewing machine. When I ask them why they want to look at their activity in class, they typically use one of the phrases:

  • I’m having trouble with x.[insert activity here]
  • I can’t play this passage.
  • It could have been better.
  • I’m okay up to this point, but then it all goes wrong.
  • I don’t breathe properly.
  • I always run out of air before the end.
  • I can’t hit that note.
  • I’m not doing as well as I’d like.

And when my students say their variation on these phrases, a line or two by FM Alexander runs through my mind: “when…we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed … He often finds an enormous difficulty in altering some trifling habit of thought that stands between him and the benefit he clearly expects.” *

FM is pointing us towards an important truth. So often, the way we think about a problem is not only a part of the problem, but actually stands between us and the change of attitude and perspective necessary to find a solution. Or, to quote Stephen Covey, the way we see the problem is the problem.”

So next time you find yourself saying a variant on the above statements, try to find a new and more positive way of articulating the same thing:

  • I want to achieve x, but haven’t yet worked out how to do it.
  • I don’t yet play this passage the way I envisage it.
  • It hasn’t reached my highest standard, but there was improvement.
  • I haven’t managed to continue my thinking into this part [of the piece/action] yet.
  • I’m not sure how the breathing mechanism works.
  • There’s a reason why I run out of air, but I haven’t worked it out yet.
  • I don’t know why that note doesn’t come out right yet.
  • My current standard of performance hasn’t yet achieved the high standard I’ve set myself.

Can you see how these are more open? They either acknowledge the progress already made, or provide openings that will help us to question why things aren’t working out yet.

And the key word is YET. Alter those trifling habits of thought, follow the process of questioning and exploring, and good things will happen.

Let me know how you are going to restate your difficulties in the comments. Or if you’re adept at doing this already, let me know what benefits you’ve experienced. The more evidence that it works, the more people will want to give it a go!

*FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat edition, p.52.
Photo by Gordon Plant. 

 

 

Simple Steps to Successful Music Practice with Alexander Technique

This post is about why, as a musician, I have had trouble with the concept of practice; about wise words on the subject from FM Alexander and a sports psychologist, and some steps I’m trialling to improve my practice technique.

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I started playing recorder when I was six. I loved it right from the start, but I was very inconsistent in my practice regime. To be blunt, I didn’t have one. I got by on a bit of natural talent (a very little bit), luck, and the odd guilt-provoked practice binge session. It was not a great way to get by!

The discipline of practice has been fascinating to me ever since. How do other people do it? What are they actually doing? Do long hours in front of the music stand really make a difference in and of themselves? It was, therefore, with some excitement that I read an article by a sports/music psychologist Dr Noa Kageyama entitled ‘How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?’ What fascinated me was that Dr Kageyama took some pains to tease out exactly what it is that we are doing when we practice.

You will probably laugh when I tell you that it was a major realisation to me the day I realised that practice is actually a skill. It is something that needs to be done systematically and with a degree of reasoning and planning to be successful.

This is revelatory because I wasn’t taught that way. As a child learning how to play, I was told to practice, but wasn’t taught how to do it. It was just something that you did (or in my case, did as little as I could get away with!) Therefore I did it ineffectually.

In The Use of the Self, FM Alexander says that ‘willing to do’ something is all very well, but if you are directing your energy in the wrong direction, applying exertion and willpower will only speed you further along the wrong path.*

This was certainly the case with me. Because I didn’t know how to practice, I made fundamental errors, like going back to the beginning of a piece every time I made a mistake. The result was that I knew the beginnings of my music really well, but not the endings! Playing also became a stressful activity, because the playing of the music would get harder and harder and more stressful as I went along. It is very stressful beginning a piece of music when you don’t know if you are going to be able to make it through to the end.

 

If you practice poorly or with little strategy, you are likely to store up problems for yourself in the long run.

The solution? Teach people how to practice.

This certainly wasn’t done when I was a kid. Based on my experiences of my son’s music lessons, I am not convinced the situation has changed much. I don’t have any information, sadly, on the current state of pedagogy for childhood music education, and what it has to say about the issue of practice. (If you know anything, PLEASE contact me!) But from my reading so far, I can give these tips for the adults. They’re things that I’m experimenting with at the moment.

1.Goals. Have a goal for each practice session.

2. Keep it short. Dame Nellie Melba said beginning singers should only spend 10 minutes actually singing at any one time. I think that is really good advice for any musician who is grappling with the concept of how to practice. Even 10 minutes can be a long time to devote one’s whole mind to a task.

3. Practice without the instrument. Look at the music. Listen to other people play it. Clap the rhythms. Write out the words. Say them as poetry. Experiment!

4.  Do it regularly. Do some every day. Equally, don’t beat yourself up if there is a day where you can’t. Julia Cameron suggests making a deal with yourself to do a certain number of days out of the week. I try for 5 days out of seven.

Do you have any other tips? Tell me about them!

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.440.
Image by nuchylee from freedigitalphotos.net

Steps to conquer stage fright: permission to fail

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Third, we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. Fourth, we looked at the importance of knowing what you’re doing. Last week, we talked about the danger of focusing on results.

 

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The other day I read a fantastic blog post by one of my favourite writers, Sarah Duncan. She was advising the readers of her blog to give themselves permission to write rubbish. Sarah wrote:

“I tell students to write rubbish because the worst bit of rubbishy writing on the page is worth more than the most perfect bit of prose stuck in your head. Stuff on the page can be improved, developed, tweaked,given colour and life and energy and style. Stuff in your head is – well, stuff in your head. It can’t be read by anyone.”

I think there are two important points to draw out of this.

  1. To do something well, you have to do it a lot. A lot. And you have to be prepared for some of what you do to be rubbish. There is no point waiting around for perfect inspiration to strike! I wrote about the importance of practice here.
  2. You have to give yourself permission to fail. It is important to allow yourself to be bad at something.

Reasons to be rubbish

  1. Everyone has to start somewhere. Even the greatest musicians and artists started off at the beginning. And part of being at the beginning is making mistakes.
  2. Mistakes are part of the learning process. Robert Kiyosaki writes about this very effectively in his book If You Want to be Rich and Happy, Don’t Go to School.
  3. Perfection paralyses creativity. If you wait for perfection before you put the sentence on the page (or the brush on the canvas), you’ll be consigning yourself to a potentially angst-ridden experience.

FM Alexander remarked in 1923 upon the fact that our response to stimuli is in part determined by our psycho-physical condition. He reminds us that “a man’s conception of his present or future financial condition in life is different when he is … in a good and happy ‘frame of mind’, from what it is when he has a ‘grouch’.”*  And Cognitive Behavioural Therapy would tell us that our frame of mind is a decision we have made based upon a thought process. (See Burns’ Feeling Good)

Therefore, making a different decision about how we are going to respond to the concept of failure is actually really important. Nobody particularly wants to fail. So we mentally (and possibly physically) tense up in preparation. It is hard to be creative and perform well when tense.

So if we give ourselves permission to fail, we on’t merely take pressure off ourselves. We may even give ourselves the freedom to perform better.

But what about the performance? I can’t give a bad Groom’s speech!

It’s true that sometimes the rubber has to hit the road. You have to be ready. But that’s why it’s a great idea to give yourself lots of trials runs, having a go in low-risk situations where it is easier to allow yourself to fail. If you have to give a speech, join Toastmasters and get some practice there. If you’re a musician, find a group to play with informally. Play in small competitions. Find places to try things out and be rubbish. Then you’ll be more prepared when you’re in the performance where it has to ‘count’.

Will you give yourself permission to fail?

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.240.

Steps to conquer stage fright: stop focusing on results

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Third, we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. Fourth, we looked at the importance of knowing what you’re doing. This week, we talk about the danger of focusing on results.

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I have a number of students who are actors or musicians. They come to me typically because they feel that there is something that is holding them back from performing with the ease and freedom that they desire. A typical lesson goes something like this:

[student plays/performs brilliantly.]

Me:      How did you do?
Student: Okay, I guess.
Me:      What made it okay?
Student: Well, I didn’t hit that note quite the way I wanted, and this phrase didn’t quite work, and I think I could have out more expression into the piece, and my tone wasn’t as good as it could have been…
Me: Hm. But apart from those things, how did you do?
[Student looks puzzled.]
Me: Did you successfully carry out your plan?
Student: Ummm…

 

Now, the point here isn’t that the student is being hard on themselves. (They are, by the way.) The point isn’t particularly that they are attuned only to notice negative things about their performance. (Though this is a common problem with performers.)

The problem here is that the student is focused on the negative results. They are listening to the results – the by-product – of a process. When I ask about the process they were using to get their results, they just look puzzled.

If you are thinking and worrying and focusing on the way the performance sounds while you are in the middle of performing, you are focusing on something that has already happened. It is gone. You have no control over it any more. But if you’re thinking about the sound that is already out there, I can pretty much guarantee there’s one thing that you’re not thinking about.

The process that leads to the sound.

In other words, once you start judging your performance while you’re doing it, you effectively give up control over everything that is to come. And I hope you’ll agree with me that this doesn’t sound like a great idea.

So try keeping your mind on what is useful: your plan and your process. Spend the time working out what you want to achieve, and then focus on that. Block your ears, if you have to, just so that you get a sense of what it might be like to give up the addiction to mid-performance criticism.

Comfortingly, FM Alexander says 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…”

If we keep working on the process, results will come, and we won’t need to worry about them or listen out for them, because we’ll know that they are there. What a wonderful comforting thought.

Do you keep your mind on the process, or does your inner critic drown out your plan? Tell me about it in the comments.

Photograph by Kevin Leighton.

Steps to conquer stage fright: give yourself time

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Third, we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. Fourth, we looked at the importance of knowing what you’re doing. Last week, we examined how our general state of wellbeing (use of ourselves) affects our performance.

This week, we’re giving ourselves time.

Time

Today in my singing lesson, I was reminded of what is possibly the greatest luxury any performer can give themselves.

Time.

Time is a slippery customer. It can seem to move so quickly. It can feel as though it is in someone else’s control. When I asked my students at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama what they found hardest about doing auditions, feeling rushed came high on the list. My students felt as though they were not able to give themselves the time and space to give the calibre of performance they were capable of giving.

Note this: they felt as though they couldn’t give themselves time.

No one said they couldn’t. No one told them not to take a second to breathe. It was a choice that they made in reaction to the given circumstances (such as the general atmosphere in the room).

Allowing oneself a moment to stop is a fundamental tool within the Alexander Technique. When FM was trying to solve his vocal hoarseness, he realised that:

“if ever I was to be able to change my habitual use … it would be necessary for me to make the experience of receiving a stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.”*

FM realised that if he didn’t give himself this pause, he was far more likely to speak using his body in the more habitual way that caused the hoarseness. If he received the stimulus but refused to do anything immediately in response, he gave himself the chance to put his new reasoned process into action.

So give yourself time.

Stand up. Pause. Then begin the speech.

Finish the sentence. Let it be finished. Then start the next.

Finish the musical phrase. Stop the breath. Allow the body to breathe in. Then sing.

If you stop, you give yourself a priceless gift: the chance to choose what happens next. So what will you choose?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p. 424.
Image by Just2shutter from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

Steps to conquer stage fright: general wellbeing matters

This is a series about conquering stage fright. First, we talked about the importance of knowing yourself. Then, we talked about the fear factor. Then we talked about creating positive experiences to help fight the panic. Last week, we looked at the importance of knowing what you’re doing. This week, we’ll examine how our general state of wellbeing (use of ourselves) affects our performance.

ronnie-sullivan-640x480

I am a big fan of snooker, and one of the highlights of my year is the Snooker World Championships – 17 days of non-stop snooker action. I think many snooker fans will agree that one of the great excitements of the past few years has been the anticipation of seeing how player Ronnie O’Sullivan is going to fare in the tournament.

Ronnie is generally acknowledged to be the most naturally gifted player to ever pick up a snooker cue. But he is also widely acknowledged to have not achieved as many tournament wins as his prodigious talent would have suggested he might. Critics suggest that O’Sullivan’s temperamental streak leads to a lack of confidence.*

When Ronnie O’Sullivan won his first World Championship in 2001, part of his strategy for maintaining his focus through the long matches was by working on his general fitness. He took up running, and watched his diet and his sleep patterns carefully. He found that taking care of himself more generally led to a change in attitude at the snooker table.**

 

Why your general use/wellbeing matters.

FM Alexander wouldn’t have been surprised that Ronnie’s snooker abilities improved when he took care of his general wellbeing. FM wrote:

“the success of any particular process … must depend, primarily, on the general condition of psycho-physical development and control present…”

And he goes on:

“By chance or good luck a man may make a good stroke without having attained to a good standard in the general use of himself, but he can never be reasonably certain of repeating it, and the experiences associated with this state of uncertainty do not make for the growth of confidence.”***

In other words, if we want to be good at playing flute, or singing, or speaking in public, we need to pay attention to what we do with our minds and bodies more generally. If we are generally predisposed, as Ronnie O’Sullivan seems to be, to being hypercritical of ourselves, then that tendency will be exacerbated in our specific activity. If we are generally inclined to keep our shoulder muscles tense, then I can confidently predict that we’ll have them extra-tight just before we make that big speech.

This means that we can’t just think of conquering our stage fright when we’re performing. It is a whole-life process of change.

Here are a couple of questions that might get you started on the journey to improving your general psycho-physical condition.

  • What attitude do you have to life generally? Ae you a relaxed individual, or are you a little on the anxious side?
  • Think about the areas of your body that are most tense before you perform. Take a mental check on them now. How relaxed (or not) are they ordinarily?

Today, how can you move beyond your usual state of being?

 

* See the Wikipedia entry on Ronnie for references.
** He talks about this at length in his autobiography, Ronnie: The Autobiography of Ronnie O’Sullivan (co-authored with Simon Hattenstone, Orion, 2004).
*** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.341.