Is there one right way of sitting?

There is no such thing as one right way of sitting, just as not all chairs look like this one.

I’m about to start teaching Alexander Technique to a new batch of orchestral musicians, and I’m pretty certain that at some point one of them is going to ask me to show them the right way to sit. The right way to sit for playing cello, or guitar, or violin. The correct way to sit to avoid back pain and exhaustion in long orchestra rehearsals.

What would you tell them? Is there one right way of sitting? Broadening the question out: is there a ‘one right way’ for every activity?

One right way – a question of levels

If I’m talking to a group of complete beginners at Alexander Technique, I’ll probably sound like I’m giving a very qualified yes to this question, but only because of where they are coming from. A group of new students is used to doing every activity in their old way, with their old understanding. Part of my job is to demonstrate to them that their old way of understanding things may not be the most effective or evidence-based of approaches. With regard to sitting, I often ask groups to point to where their hip joints are; it is a rare student who points to roughly the correct location.

Because moving at the hips joints should be a key part of any strategy to sit effectively and efficiently – especially for prolonged periods – my replacing of their old idea of hip joint location with a more accurate one is going to make big differences. This is because we have swapped an incorrect idea for one that is more accurate. This is what FM Alexander wanted his teachers to do:

where ideas that are patently erroneous have already been formed in the [student’s] mind, the teacher should take pains to apprehend these preconceptions, and in dealing with them he should not attempt to overlay them, but should eradicate them as far as possible before teaching or submitting the new and correct idea.[1]

So are my newly enlightened students now sitting better? Absolutely! Have I given them ideas about how to get into a chair that utilise mechanical advantage? Yes! Will they take these ideas away and believe that they have been taught the ‘one right way’ to sit? Yep.

Why we don’t want to introduce new habits for old

If a student walks away from a lesson with me believing that they’ve learned a better way to sit, then I’ve helped them a bit. I won’t have really done my job, though, because according to Alexander teaching is something more than replacing an old habit with a newer better one. He said

by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself [2]

If I don’t engage a student’s reason, then I’ve not really helped them to lasting change. If my definition of the Alexander Technique from the other week is correct – a theory and practice that teaches us how to discipline our thinking in order to direct ourselves better in any activity we choose – a student who walks away with an unchallenged belief in there being ‘one right way’ to do an activity hasn’t yet developed the mental discipline to choose the best course of action in any circumstance.

To take the specific example of sitting, not all chairs are the same. Not all chairs have a lot of space in front of them. Some of them are in buses or cars. Even if there aren’t space considerations that will change the specifics of the protocol you use when you approach them to sit down, the height and shape of the chair certainly should be considered. I want you to be able to sit efficiently and comfortably in all chairs, not just the one in my teaching studio!

The aim of re-education on a general basis is to bring about at all times and for all purposes, not a series of correct positions or postures, but a co-ordinated use of the mechanisms in general. [3]

Going beyond the ‘one right way’

I really want to encourage you to play with going beyond the ‘one right way’ style of thinking. I’m going to use sitting as my specific example again, partly because it is very specific, but also because almost everyone does it at some point!

If I were working with you, I would want to encourage you to think about:

  • The chair – how high is the seat? Is it flat, sloping, bucket-shaped? Does it have a backrest, and is it sloped?
  • The circumstances – how much space is there in front of the seat, or to the sides? Are you carrying anything that would change your plan?
  • Your anatomy – hips, knees, ankles
  • Your playfulness – what do you feel like doing?

And then based on all these variables, I would encourage you to make a plan, and carry it out.

Every time you sit, it will be different. Even if the chair is the same, you are not. Embrace that – don’t be an Alexander robot – and keep playing with your thinking. Do that, and you will truly be fulfilling what Alexander wants you to do: to be able to direct yourself in activity with co-ordination and grace.

Have fun.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.88.

[2] ibid.

[3] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.308.

Image: Dori [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)]

Keep success going: don’t chase results!

I learned not to chase results by singing with fingers in my ears, just like this German girl.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how to keep success going. I said that in the initial stages of learning a new skill, we are rendered inconsistent because we have a dodgy process AND a poor (or at least inconsistently good) use of ourselves. If we want to be successful, we need to have a consistently good process, and we want to use ourselves consistently well as we follow the process we’ve honed.

But there is one more thing that can trip us up in our quest to be truly awesome at what we do (or, if you’re British and prefer understatement, rather good at what we do). It is this.

We start to look at the results.

Worse, we may begin to assess our effectiveness by our results. This can lead to a dangerous path: choosing to chase results and forgetting the process.

Chasing results

Let’s be honest: we all love results. Pretty much everyone wants good results from their efforts. The problem is, results can’t be good all the time. The peril of success is that it becomes very tempting to be bewitched by good results. When you do this, it can become very easy to stop thinking about the process that led to the good results in the first place. And if you stop thinking about the new process and focus on the end, FM Alexander says that it’s very likely that you’ll (without noticing) revert to using the old process that you’d worked out wasn’t useful. He writes:

if the pupil thinks of a certain end” as desirable and starts to pursue it directly, he will certainly take the course of action in regard to it that he has been accustomed to take in like conditions. In other words, he will follow his habitual procedure in regard to it, and should that procedure happen to be a bad one for the purpose (and the fact that he needs re-education proves this to be the case), he only strengthens the incorrect experiences in connection with it by using this procedure again. [1]

By failing to focus on the new process, and instead focusing on results you want to achieve, you actually run the risk of strengthening the old and insufficient way you went about things before! Musicians and sportspeople: this is doubly dangerous when you begin evaluating the results you are getting while engaged in the activity. I’m sure every musician has experienced that moment as they play where they begin to think about how well things are going, and then immediately make a mistake! My lovely singing teacher, the late Gerald Wragg, used to try to get me out of this particular trap by asking me to block my ears. When I couldn’t hear properly what sounds I was making, it was easier to focus my attention on carrying out the changes in technique he was asking me to make. The physical barrier made it impossible to chase results!

Sticking to process and choosing not to chase results

My singing teacher found that the only way of stopping me evaluating my singing – as I was singing – was a physical barrier. I’m sure most of you aren’t as recalcitrant as me! You can choose to stop focusing on results, and instead work on the process – what Alexander in the following passage calls the ‘conscious means’:

If, on the other hand, the pupil stops himself from going to work in his usual way (inhibition), and proceeds to replace his old subconscious means by the new conscious means which his teacher has given him, and which he has therefore every reason to believe will bring about the desired result, he will have taken the first and most important step towards the breaking-down of a habit, and towards that constructive, conscious and reasoning control which tends towards a mastery of the situation. [2]

Note the final sentence of the passage: Alexander is telling us that we are aiming towards mastery. He isn’t looking at ‘just good enough’ or even ‘fairly proficient’; he tells us that if we keep working on using our constructive, conscious, reasoning control, we will achieve mastery! If this is the case, then evaluating our success by only looking at our results might not tell the whole story. We should ask ourselves: did I follow my new process? Did I manage to stop myself from going to work in my usual way? Have I improved my skills at mental discipline?

If Alexander is right – and I firmly believe he is – then if we just follow the process we’ve reasoned out, success (mastery) is inevitable. Start by working on the process, and leaving the results to themselves.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.308.

[2] ibid.

Image: Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)]

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 is the Alexander Technique, anyway?

We answer What is the Alexander Technique by using a river like this as an analogy.

What is the Alexander Technique? What’s it good for? Why would I want to study it?

These are questions that any Alexander Technique teacher ought to be able to answer. They are also questions that anyone taking Alexander lessons will have to answer at some point, when they tell their friends what they’re doing! Any teacher or student will also tell you that they are sometimes tricky to answer. So what is the Alexander Technique, and why should anyone be interested in it?

What is the Alexander Technique? FM Alexander’s definition.

A student reminded me recently of FM Alexander’s own definition of his work. He said in his first book:

…the centre and backbone of my theory and practice, upon which I feel that I cannot insist too strongly, is that THE CONSCIOUS MIND MUST BE QUICKENED.[1]

It looks like a simple sentence, but it actually needs a bit of unpacking, because there are a couple of words there that are deceptive. Let’s deal with the easy ones first:

Centre and backbone: it’s central to his work, and provides the main structure. Quite important, then…

Theory and practice: Alexander’s work isn’t just book knowledge. He wants it to be practical – to be used.

Quickened: Alexander chose to use a word best known from the King James Bible – “the quick and the dead”, meaning the living and the dead. Alexander doesn’t want the conscious mind to be faster. Rather, he wants it to be more alive.

Which leaves us with ‘conscious’. What did Alexander mean when he said that the conscious mind must be made more alive?

Conscious: the river analogy

When my student and I discussed this, we decided to approach it by looking at the opposite. What would it be like if the conscious mind was dead? We decided that it would mean unmoving, and that the only change would be towards deterioration. Then we thought about things that don’t move themselves or grow, and which either don’t change or deteriorate. After a few moments, we came up with the idea of sticks and branches floating in a river.

A branch in a river just floats along with the stream. It has to go with the flow of the river. It might get dragged onto rocks, or the force of the water might cause it damage. A branch goes wherever the river takes it. 

I have friends who have done something similar – they have allowed themselves to float in a body of water. Just floating, not making an attempt to paddle, they have allowed the current to move them gently along. This is apparently quite good fun until the current gets a little fast, or there are obstacles like rocks in the river bed. Then my friends say that actively swimming to safety is a really good idea!

This gives us a clue into what Alexander might mean by ‘conscious’. If you’re my friend floating in the river, it isn’t enough just to notice that things are getting a little dangerous. Neither is it enough to spring into action, but randomly paddle in the hope of going in a direction that is safer. My friend would need to:

  • Notice the danger (be aware of it)
  • Decide which is the safest way to swim (reason out a best course of action)
  • Swim in the direction they decided was best (deliberately do what they intend)

It is that middle step that is key: reasoning out the best way to go. We can make ourselves more aware, we can make ourselves better at going into action, but what we most need to do is learn to reason out the best way to go.

What is the Alexander Technique? – Alexander says…

If we draw all our ideas together, we could say that central to Alexander’s theory and practice is that our reasoning mind needs to be made more alive. He wants us to discipline our thinking in order that we can direct ourselves efficiently in activity. In fact, he wants us to be able to discipline our thinking so that we can direct ourselves in any activity we choose.

 So if we were to answer our question what is the Alexander Technique? – we could say that:

The Alexander Technique is a theory and practice that teaches us how to discipline our thinking in order to direct ourselves better in any activity we choose. 

If we do this regularly, we can be more successful at the things we do. And if we are more successful, we will feel happier and more fulfilled. We’ll be more efficient, and have more energy. We could, in fact, change our lives for the better.

Does that sound like a great reason to start? 

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT NY 1997, p.36.

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

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

Can mental flexibility become as good as this lion stretching?

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

Back to the Great Madeleine Disaster of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Why make change? To maintain mental flexibility.

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

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

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

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

Mental flexibility requires practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] ibid., p.67f.

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

The importance of experimentation and failure in improvement

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

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

The background to experimentation and failure in improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

I practised patiently, month after month, as I had been doing hitherto, with varying experiences of success and failure, but without much enlightenment. In time, however, I profited by these experiences… [5]

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

The Great Madeleine Disaster of 2019

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

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

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

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

So I tried both those things on the second batch.

Madeleines, Take 2

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

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

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

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

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

Experimentation and failure: vital tools

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

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

[2] ibid., p.28.

[3] ibid., p.33.

[4] ibid., p.41.

[5] ibid., p.32.

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

One simple tip to help you appear more confident onstage

Yes, I know: it’s a clickbait title. But in this post I really do want to give you one simple tip to help you appear more confident onstage! Looking confident in front of people often comes up in my classes or workshops. It came up just last week, in fact, when I was working with some teachers here in Bristol. Even people who have a lot of experience being in front of a crowd – like teachers or performers – sometimes feel that they struggle with confidence, and want to have a greater air of authority in front of their particular audience group.

If you want to project a greater sense of authority and presence to your audience, I have one question for you. What are you doing with your head as you breathe in to speak?

The three harmful tendencies

When he wanted to investigate the cause of his vocal hoarseness, FM Alexander looked in the mirror, and saw that he did three things when he began to recite: he pulled back his head; depressed his larynx; and he sucked in breath. What is more, he noticed that he did exactly the same three things preparatory to speaking normally – each movement was a little smaller.

Reasoning that these movements were harmful and contributing to his vocal problems, Alexander tried to prevent them. He discovered

…that when I succeeded in preventing the pulling back of the head, this tended indirectly to check the sucking in of breath and the depressing of the larynx … as I gradually gained experience in this prevention, my liability to hoarseness tended to decrease. [1]

Alexander found that pulling back his head as he went to speak made a clear contribution to his vocal troubles. The question I want to ask you is: do you do the same thing?

Opening the mouth vs opening the head

In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, there are two different strategies people use to breathe in and speak. The minority leave their skull still, and drop their jaw to breathe. 

Picture: Dropping your jaw to breathe and speak will help you appear more confident onstage

The others choose the more inventive strategy of leaving their jaw still and opening their head. That is to say, they pull their head back away from their lower jaw.

Picture of a head being thrust away from a still jaw, which does little to make you look confident onstage!

This has knock-on effects all the way down the spine, making a negative impact upon the whole breathing mechanism. More interesting for today, though, is the effect that it has upon the way a person appears to an audience.

Appear more confident onstage

If you pull your head back and leave your lower jaw still in order to speak, your eyeline changes – you will be looking down at people. Even more interestingly, your back and chest will now need to work a little harder than normal to keep your body balanced after you’ve thrown your skull backwards, so you’ll have turned on muscles that lock up your chest and your ribs. This will cause you to look ‘tight’, and your voice will seem thinner with the decrease in resonance. You may also have needed to raise your shoulders to try and manoevour air into the upper part of your lungs, as the lower portion will be impeded by the muscle tightness. In short, you’re likely to look nervy, or as my acting students would say, ‘lower status’.

Participants in my voice and presentation skills workshops typically report that when  they see a participant volunteer speak by just allowing their jaw to move downwards, they see a positive change. They report seeing someone who is more confident and self-assured; a speaker who is more engaged with their audience; a speaker who can be heard more clearly. Remarkably, a small change in what a person does with their head in relation with their body can make or break an impression of being confident onstage.

It’s worth noting that the speaker might still FEEL nervous. They may not feel the confidence that the others report seeing. But that’s okay. It’s normal to feel nervous;  but no speaker wants their nerves to impact negatively upon their impression to their audience. 

Being or feeling confident can come along later with experience and practice. For now, it is enough to appear confident onstage. And to do that, you can begin not by thinking about confidence directly, but by approaching it sideways – by thinking about just opening your jaw when you start to speak.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, pp.27-8.

Base tension levels too high? It may trigger stage fright

Base tension levels might be too high, like holding these hand grips!

If you suffer from performance anxiety, you may want to consider if you have a problem with base tension levels.

Everyone has a base level of tension or a collection of muscular movements – a ‘set’ – that they take into every activity. FM noticed this right at the beginning of his investigations into his own vocal hoarseness. He found that he made three actions with his head in relation with his body: he pulled back his head, depressed his larynx, and sucked in breath. He first noticed himself doing these things while reciting. Soon, though, he found he did them to a smaller degree in normal speaking, too.[1]

When we are engaged in an activity that requires more of us – like reciting a particularly dramatic piece of Shakespeare, or playing in front of an audience – we do our habitual ‘set’ of muscular tension more. FM realised that the three ‘harmful tendencies’ that he noticed in himself were relatively small and didn’t have any particular effect during normal speaking. When he recited, however, the three tendencies were larger and more pronounced, and he would become hoarse while he was acting.

I recited again and again in front of the mirror and found that the three tendencies I had already noticed became especially marked when I was reciting passages in which unusual demands were made upon my voice … what I did in ordinary speaking caused no noticeable harm, while what I did in reciting to meet any unusual demands on my voice brought about an acute condition of hoarseness.[2]

FM’s three harmful tendencies had an immediate and negative effect upon his vocal prowess. But the physical tensions that we carry around with us on a daily basis may prove problematic when we are about to perform in a very different way.

The Yerkes-Dodson law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law has been around since 1908, and describes the relationship between arousal and performance. Put simply, if you are engaged in a fairly demanding task (like performing) and want your performance level to be high, then you need to hit a ‘sweet spot’ of arousal. You don’t want to not care or not feel anything at all, but you also don’t want your system to be so bombarded with stimuli and so full of stress hormones that you’re hitting the limit of what you can handle.

If your base tension levels are high, you sit at the top of the Yerkes-Dodson grave U curve.

We know that stress hormones are likely to create a level of arousal that could impact upon our performance – ageing parents, unruly kids, a difficult job are all likely to take their toll. Sian Beilock explains:

People with chronic stress in their lives are likely to sit at the top of the U under normal conditions, so when they are faced with the added pressure of public speaking they may be more likely to perform poorly than those who normally sit on the uphill side. If a spouse who is anything but a calming entity is put into the mix, the consequences can be disastrous.[3]

Physical stimuli matter too

We often forget, though, that physical factors are likely to do the same thing. Trainer Don Clark tells a wonderful story about a colleague who was asked to give a training session for a meat packing company, and was given for his training room a cold storage area! The trainees had so much excess environmental arousal from the cold room that the trainer had to work very hard to reduce the arousal factors within his course so that everyone could learn effectively.[4]

Physical stimuli might not be all external, however. The base levels of tension that we take with us everywhere in the course of our day are likely to have just as big an impact. Think about it: FM Alexander noticed that he pulled his head back MORE when he was about to recite some demanding Shakespeare. Similarly, we are likely to increase our base tension levels in response to the stimulus of an impending performance:

  • I walk around every day with (for example) very tight trapezius muscles and resultant raised shoulders. I’m already at a fairly high level of physical arousal. My system is irritable (used as a technical term here).
  • I raise my shoulders a little every time I talk, or walk, or buy an ice cream.
  • If I am about to do something more demanding – like perform in a concert – I will do the shoulder raising even more.
  • This shoulder raising is likely to have a negative impact upon my ability to perform. This is because it sends my arousal level into the danger zone where my system is overloaded.

The solution? Reduce your base tension levels!

There are a lot of things that can help: breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, forms of therapy like CBT all help. But Alexander Technique is uniquely a tool that helps you to notice and change your habitual use of yourself. You can look in a mirror like FM did, and see if you can spot and then prevent the physical movements that you make as a precursor to every activity. Or you can book in to see someone like me. We can work on reducing your base tension levels using a combination of discussion and hands-on guidance.

If you are more relaxed – physically and mentally – on a daily basis, you will be more able to cope with the increased demands upon your system that performing involves. And then you’ll be better able to give the truly captivating performance that you most desire.

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

[2] ibid., p.27.

[3] Beilock, S., Choke, London, Constable, 2011, p.316.

[4] Clark, D.R. (2010). Arousal and Performance. Retrieved from http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/performance/arousal.html. Retrieved on 27 June 2019.

Image of hand-grips Elfer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Image of Yerkes-Dodson graph from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes–Dodson_law, accessed 27 June 2019.

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

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

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

Little better than chance?

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

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

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

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

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

Two areas of attack to keep success going

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

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

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

Alexander recognised two things:

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

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

Keep success going with mental practice

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

Work on your general co-ordination.

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

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

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

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

How do you respond to mistakes?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?

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

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

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

Experimentation leads to information

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

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

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

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

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

Mistakes lead to re-examination

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

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

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

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

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

Learning from mistakes: the process

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

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

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

flowchart of how to analyse mistakes and feedback

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

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

So will you?

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

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

[3] ibid., p.27.

[4] ibid., p.34.

Image by Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos.net

Flowchart made by Jennifer.