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.

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

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

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

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

Deliberate practice: the way to handle fear.

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

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

Deliberate practice in the performance arena

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

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

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

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

Handling fear in three points

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

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

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

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

How do you practise Alexander Technique?

Yellow sign - When you practise Alexander Technique you are a mind under construction.

Students often ask me how they should practise Alexander Technique. Often it’s the new students who ask, but sometimes the experienced ones do, too. We work on something in a lesson, and the student experiences a positive change. Understandably, they want the positive change to persist and even get better. So they ask me: “How should I work on this?”

And at this point I take a deep breath, because I’m about to say something to them that they may not like.

But before I tell you what I tell them, I’m going to explain why asking how to practise Alexander Technique is such a tricky question.

We think we know what practising looks like.

Most of us have either played a musical instrument, or been involved in sport, or trained for a 10k or a sponsored walk, or done something that involves practice. So we think we know what it is. A cello teacher, for example, might work with her student on making the shifts in a 3 octave C major scale, and suggest that the student just works on the shifts in order to get used to the movement pattern. Similarly, when I ran my first 10k race I followed a training plan that told me how often to run each week, and how long/fast each run should be.

Both of these are good examples of direct instruction. The teacher tells the student what to do, and the student (hopefully) goes away and does the thing they’ve been told to do. They are working on a skill, and they are working on it directly (on the instrument/pounding the pavement). 

In addition, the student isn’t necessarily thinking at all of the manner in which they are following the teacher’s instruction – it is possible for them to work on the skill without really considering the way they are using themselves at all. They are taking their current general condition of use into improving the specific skill.

Working indirectly

We know that we don’t have to practise ‘on the instrument’ all the time, but often I find students feel like they aren’t really practising unless they’ve actually held the violin for a set number of hours. However, working indirectly – for example, doing a similar but unrelated activity – can be a great way to improve one’s skill.  I discovered this recently with my running. I started doing daily yoga just as a bit of fun, and then discovered that running up hills seemed much easier because I’d gained significantly more leg strength!

Sometimes even just allowing oneself to stop focussing so hard on something and having a break (or a daydream) can be hugely beneficial. There’s a ton of literature available now demonstrating that allowing one’s brain to drift for a while in ‘default mode’ helps with creativity and problem-solving.[1] How often have you come back from a walk, or come out of the shower, and realised that you’ve solved the problem that was bothering you, without even apparently thinking about it?! That happens because you’re not thinking about it directly.

Unless there’s a good reason to do otherwise, we practise Alexander Technique by working indirectly. If a student has been crunching their torso down into their pelvis, for example, I probably won’t get them to specifically do anything to try and prevent the crunch. This would be working too directly and specifically – my student would try to use their old familiar ways of fixing problems and possibly end up in even more difficulty than they were before!

This is why, when my student asks me what they should do to practise Alexander Technique, I suggest that they ‘keep the lesson in mind.’ Bluntly, I want them to think about it, but not too closely.

Is that all?! Does just thinking about something really make a difference?

Simple answer: yes. For two reasons:

Changing point of view

FM Alexander was trying to get us to use our brains more effectively, and he firmly believed in the transformative power of a change in thinking. As I quoted last week, FM said early in his writing career,

A changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.[2]

If we take seriously the notion that we are a psycho-physical unity, then it must follow that a change in thinking will lead to a change in our entire psycho-physical organism.

Getting out of thought grooves

I also want us to take seriously the idea that we get stuck in grooves of thought just as surely as we get stuck in habitual patterns of movement. We think the same sorts of things in the same sorts of ways most of the time. So what FM also wants us to do is to re-examine our concept of thinking. And there’s plenty of evidence from the fields of neuroscience and psychology that our traditional ideas of good thinking – keep concentrating, keep focussed – might need some altering.

When I tell a student to keep the lesson details ‘in the back of their mind’, I’m trying to get across the idea that we spend a lot of our lives – too much – in focussed mode thinking, and that what most of us need is a bit more default mode time. We need to trust a little more in the power of daydreaming; we need to let our ideas change in the background while we do other things. If we do this, we will be playing with a new concept of thinking. And if we play with a new concept of thinking, we will change.

[1] My favourite author on this is Prof Barbara Oakley. See her book A Mind for Numbers, or her more recent publication Learning How to Learn, co-written with Terrence Sejnowski and Alistair McConville.

[2] Alexander, F.M, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.44.

Image by Acrow005 from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Are you really changing? Foundational change vs ‘getting better’.

Foundational change?

Foundational change happens at root-level, not in the canopy.

I spent some time interacting with a group of Alexander Technique students recently, and it took me a while to articulate something that I saw while I was with them. There was clearly a lot of improvement going on in these people’s lives, but some people had changed really significantly in ways that others didn’t seem to have. And it occurred to me: there are different levels of change. There is a difference between changing fundamental ideas and beliefs about oneself, as opposed to getting increasingly more adept and more efficient at the compensatory movements that we use to avoid having to change.

How might this show up in practice? A woodwind player might reach a very high standard of accomplishment on their instrument, but if they don’t address the issues that they have around breathing, for example, they may well find they reach a ceiling beyond which they can’t progress. An employee might be incredibly capable and effective, but if they have a self-limiting belief that they aren’t good at communicating or networking, they will always struggle to get their ideas across effectively.

Foundational change = a changed point of view

FM Alexander commented that 

a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.[1]

However, he also recognised that changing one’s point of view could be difficult. 

experience of human idiosyncrasies has taught us that the most difficult thing to change is the point of view of subconsciously controlled mankind.[2]

In other words, most of us haven’t developed the tools or processes – the sheer mental discipline – to be able to change our point of view. We don’t possess the knowhow or the stamina to be able to examine the ideas and beliefs that are within our psycho-physical selves, and then alter them according to circumstance or new evidence. Foundational change, to be blunt, involves a degree of work, and you need the right tools.

Of course, the Alexander Technique is intimately concerned with developing the tools, processes, and stamina to be able to do just this. My job is to be able to help you change your psycho-physical self so you can become a better version of you. And part of that process sometimes involves assisting a person to improve the version of themselves that they currently hold, as opposed to challenging deeply-rooted foundational beliefs, though of course we do that too. To use a horticultural metaphor (borrowed a little from Henry David Thoreau), we can either work on pruning the new growth, or we can get to work on the roots.

Sometimes, thought, a student will work almost exclusively on pruning the ‘new growth’. They do become a better version of themselves, but not in the same foundational way as someone who tackles the root-level ideas and beliefs.

So why might a person decide to stick with canopy-level change? Why might someone shy away from the root-level improvement?

Canopy-level feels safer, and root-level change feels scary.

On the one hand this is human. Sometimes we do this sort of thing because the thing that most needs changing is so confronting and scary that we practise a form of denial and try to avoid it. Or the thing that needs changing is likely to take time and effort, and we really don’t relish the idea of beginning the process.

On the other hand, if we concentrate our efforts on improving the way we are using ourselves currently, we are effectively blocking off areas of our psycho-physical make-up from investigation and improvement. We’re fencing bits of ourselves off and ignoring them for the sake of making other areas better. This reminds me of one of my neighbours. He would spend a lot of time and effort working on the part of the garden closest to his house, but ignore the second part of the garden that was further away (and not immediately visible from the back door). One area was worked and reworked constantly; the other was left to weeds.

I am the last person to advocate taking away the comfort blanket of someone’s denial. I do also humbly and gently suggest, however, that as an approach to life, sticking with canopy-level change isn’t hugely healthy or satisfying. No matter how good we become at the compensatory movements and behaviours that make us feel like ourselves, we still aren’t dealing with ourselves as a whole. We will eventually reach a point where, like my neighbour, there is little more useful canopy-level tidying to be done. We need to move to the bits that are less visible, but will ultimately make a more significant and longer-lasting difference. In the end, foundational change is where our efforts should tend.

[1] Alexander, F.M, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.44.

[2] ibid.

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

Fear of falling; cello intonation: Attitude changes create life changes

fear of falling is both a physiological and a psychologic phenomenon.

What does cello intonation have to do with fear of falling??!

FM Alexander recognised during his lifetime that people would likely mistake his work as something purely physical. Any long time reader of my blog knows that this isn’t true! Within the Alexander Technique there is a very strong emphasis on changing one’s thinking in order to improve both mentally and physically. But sometimes the less helpful ideas that form part of the mental matrix with which we interact with the world can be tricky to spot. I’ve been working with some older students recently, and they have highlighted one prevailing mental attitude that really isn’t helping anyone very much: our attitudes towards ageing, and the likelihood of falling as we age.

Fear of falling is something that my older students identify as a very real concern, if not for them personally, for their circle of friends. Having done a bit of research, today I want to use the whole issue of fear of falling as an example of the way a prevailing attitude can change our lifestyle and behaviours for worse or for the better. I’m going to suggest that some of the problems that I see with young musicians (especially strings; especially cellists) actually have a very similar root to fear of falling in the elderly. I also want to show a way that Alexander Technique principles can help if you happen to be stuck in a cycle where fearfulness is limiting your horizons.

Fear of falling as a mental attitude

Having spoken with my students, we’ve identified three areas where we think fear of falling has its root: outdated societal beliefs (in this case about ageing); language use that takes away personal responsibility; and personal decision-making that generates an attitude of mind.

Outdated or mistaken ideas about what is normal:

Our ideas of ageing can be woefully outdated. We consider ourselves on a path to inexorable deterioration after age 40, even though we know that life expectancy is now vastly higher than 30 or 40 years ago. On the one hand we are healthier than ever before, but our beliefs about health expectations haven’t necessarily kept up with the science. As a running enthusiast myself, I know that the races I enter are full of people older than me (and they are frequently far fitter than me, too). In fact, the oldest female to complete the 2019 London Marathon was 84 years old – there’s a video of her that is well worth watching if you want to challenge your perceptions of what older people can achieve.[1]

Language use:

We say to a toddler that they ‘took a tumble’ – their fall is minor and unimportant. Someone who is adult might say ‘I fell over’ – it’s a sentence in the active voice. They’re taking a measure of responsibility for the event. But for the elderly we typically use the expression ‘you had a fall’ – it’s in the passive voice. It takes away any sense of personal agency or responsibility in the event.[2] 

One of my students described how one of his neighbours injured herself by tripping over a hosepipe in her garden. She was furious when friends tried to describe her as ‘having had a fall’. “I fell over!” she exclaimed. My student’s neighbour was not going to allow a change in language use to take away her responsibility for having left a hosepipe in an unfortunate place!

Not only is there no sense of personal agency or responsibility in the sentence when we use the phraseology ‘had a fall’, but the fall becomes a noun – a thing. It has an identity, like a table or a chair. It becomes something that might happen. Falling becomes, in fact, something to fear.

Personal attitude of mind.

And there’s good evidence that attitude of mind has a huge part to play in the likelihood of a bad outcome with falls in the elderly. A study carried out by the University of Sydney demonstrated that, even when people have a relatively high physiological risk of falling, if they perceive their risk of falling to be low they are actually less likely to fall than someone physiologically well who has a fear of falling.[3]

Obviously physiology is hugely important, but we can’t deny that attitude of mind is crucial. If we continue with the example of fear of falling, that fear can lead to:

  • gait changes (which actually increase the likelihood of a loss of balance);
  • reduction in stride length;
  • and giving up activities that are considered risky (and the loss of activity leads to loss of strength, which leads to more balance problems and, you guessed it, a higher chance of falling).

This is why FM Alexander stated that:

When therefore we are seeking to give a patient conscious control, the consideration of mental attitude must precede the performance of the act prescribed. The act performed is of less consequence than the manner of its performance. [4] 

Put very simply, if a person fears falling, they are very likely to change their gait and their stride length to anticipate the fall and hopefully limit the damage when it happens. Sadly, the very act of changing gait is enough to make the fall more likely. (A similar thing happens to people of any age when it snows)

We can make changes to shoes, flooring, and so on. But shouldn’t we also change the mental attitude that anticipates disaster?

Cello intonation as a mental attitude

When I work with strings players, I very often see them using a lot of muscle tension when they are playing, particularly in the left arm and hand. They have a concern about intonation. When I press them about it, I come across certain broadly common beliefs:

  • Intonation is really difficult, especially relating to shifts
  • If it’s wrong, the audience will hear instantly
  • If one note is even slightly out of tune, the whole performance is ruined
  • The note (which note? Any note!) is really difficult to get in tune.
  • The way to try and control the intonation is to use lots of muscle tension in the left arm, hope, and then if it’s slightly wrong to fix it and pull a face.

Can you see the similarities with the areas that contribute to fear of falling? I hope so!

In both cases the tension and anticipation of a bad outcome contributes to the creation of the outcome. How could we fix this?

Anticipation of fear? Planning for excellence

It’s a truism of the personal development world to say that a person gets the result that they’ve put their mind on. If we anticipate failure, we’re actually in a sense planning that failure, even though we don’t really want it. Not only that, but we then have to put in place ‘disaster recovery’ plans or course corrections to avert danger. So why not use all that thinking where it will make a real difference – before we act?

  • For the older person (or anyone on snow), this means making a decision to keep with a normal gait; to make any reasonable physical adjustments (moving the hosepipe); and to plan before each step where and how the next step is going to be.
  • For the strings player, this means hearing the next note in their head before they play. Then they can trust in their practice and training, and allow the subordinate controls of the body to make the shift.

In both cases, planning for the desired outcome is the key to success. It won’t work every time (life is sometimes random and odd things occur), but it will increase chances of a positive outcome happening regularly. And there’s the satisfaction of knowing that one is doing something useful and positive, rather than being fearful and reactive. Just that satisfaction has to be worth giving it a try.

I also know that my suggestion sounds very simple and a bit glib. But it isn’t. What I’m talking about here is taking back responsibility, and then applying consistent mental discipline to attain a positive outcome. That’s a core principle of the Alexander Technique, and I firmly believe that it can help in almost any circumstance, if you sincerely give it a go.

References

[1] Her name is Eileen Noble. See also https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/news/a27302824/oldest-woman-london-marathon/ Accessed 2 May 2019.

[2] This website from the NHS has a great example of use of passive voice when describing falls. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/falls/ ; accessed 1 May 2019.

[3] https://www.nhs.uk/news/older-people/fear-of-falling-raises-fall-risk/ ; access 1 May 2019. See also http://fallsnetwork.neura.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Delbaere-Wagga-Wagga-2014-2.pdf – A PowerPoint that has some lovely graphics that support the NHS article above. Accessed 1 May 2019.

[4] Alexander, F.M. Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the complete edition, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.60; FM’s italics.

Image By Pz – Own workThis W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape., CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13281261