Pick one thing: the causal factor that changes everything

A causal factor is like pushing the first domino in a domino runOne little domino: the causal factor

Have you ever watched a video of one of those amazing domino runs? The ones that split, go over obstacles, do amazing things? I’m always fascinated by those sorts of displays: the time it must take to set them up, the precision… And the fact that the whole display depends on pushing just one little domino to make it work.

This works for far more than simply dominos. It is the experience of my students, and countless other Alexander Technique students, that if you pick the right spot to make a change, everything else will improve around it.

The causal factor in the wild

FM Alexander found that if he focused on preventing pulling back his head, he also stopped depressing his larynx and sucking in breath, and his vocal condition improved.

One of my students found that, but thinking about how she opened her mouth to sing, she prevented a scrunching down in her neck and could improve not just her singing, but her ability to concentrate upon the words and the line of the song.

Another of my students, a jazz pianist, found that by focusing on listening to the noes he wanted to play inside his head and just allowing his fingers to do what they needed to do, he was able not just to play more effectively and beautifully, but also stop doing all the movements in his legs and jaw that were bothering him.

So what’s going on? Why does it work?

Why the causal factor exists.

A bit like the domino run, everything has to start somewhere. If you look at the dominos laid out ready to go, they look like a selection of separate pieces. It is only when you push the first one that you realise they are all connected.

It’s the same with the problems that FM Alexander found when he watched himself in the mirror. He saw three ‘harmful tendencies’, and they may have looked like three separate things, but FM guessed that it was likely that they were all connected, just like the dominos. The scientific principle involved is called the Principle of Parsimony (or Occam’s Razor) – the simplest solution to any problem is likely to be the right one. FM correctly made the assumption that the three separate physical act he saw were related to one causal factor. He then worked hard to find the causal factor, and successfully prevented himself from doing it.

And we can all do this. My singing student decided not to dilute her attention by trying to think of neck, breathing, opening note, words, and countless other things that obsess singers; she thought about how she opened her mouth, and found that everything else improved indirectly as a result. My jazz pianist found that by focusing on the notes in his head, he was free to let his well-trained fingers find the notes for themselves, and he was more able to stop the other extraneous movements.

So next time you are stuck with a problem that seems intractable, or you have a ton of things you could concentrate upon and you don’t know where is best, try doing this:

  • Ask yourself what is the most important thing about the activity you are about to do. What is your main focus? What action starts the activity? Is there part of the activity that involves high-up axial structures like the head and neck?
  • Decide to commit yourself to focusing on that one thing that you’ve decided is important.
  • Do it. Not just once, but a number of times. Note your results.

You may not pick exactly the right One Thing that changes everything first time around. We know that FM Alexander took a little while to find the right causal factor for his vocal troubles. But when you find it, just like the domino run, everything will have a chance to change and flow.

 

Image courtesy of posterize at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big questions: should I be using mirrors to practise Alexander Technique?

Self image is how we see ourselvesIn my teaching practice, many students ask me whether they should be using mirrors to help them practise Alexander Technique at home. This happens particularly if they’ve done some reading and know that FM Alexander used mirrors. They also note that I don’t have a mirror in my private teaching room, and that I very rarely use mirrors in my public or College classes.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of using mirrors? Should you use one, or not?

Using mirrors – ideas in favour

We know that FM Alexander used a mirror when he created the work we now call the Alexander Technique. He wanted to see what it was that he was doing with his vocal mechanisms while acting that was causing his vocal problems, and how it was different to what he did when speaking normally.

To this end I decided to make use of a mirror and observe the manner of my ‘doing’ both in ordinary speaking and reciting, hoping that this would enable me to distinguish the difference, if any, between them… [1]

Alexander was working entirely on his own – no teacher to help him. It makes complete sense that he would want to use a mirror to be able to see what he was doing. Music students often like using mirrors for a similar reason – it enables them to see exactly what they are doing as they play. The music college in which I work has mirrors installed in virtually every practice room. The students can work on their technique and their playing posture without needing a teacher handy.

So if you are working a lot on your own – if you are having lessons by Skype, or your Alexander Technique lessons are by necessity spaced out – then working with a mirror could be a great option for you. You get instant feedback on what you’re doing as you go about an activity. And, sometimes the things you learn and change are actually more valuable than the sensations you would have encountered in a hands-on lesson (because you did it).

Using mirrors – reasons against

This is where things start to get personal, for the simple reason that some people may simply have good cause to find mirrors very difficult. Some people dislike them, or dislike looking at themselves. When I teach group classes, when I ask how many people will find themselves instantly staring at the part of themselves they like least when faced with a mirror, I get many heartfelt nods.

When a person looks in a mirror, he* sees what he is conditioned to see – what the person’s self-concept and body image allow him to see. If the person has a negative self image, he is likely to look first at the areas that he perceives as a problem. At its mildest this is a simple dislike of a nose or some tummy flab; at its worst it manifests as Body Dysmorphic Disorder [2]. BDD is a mental health condition where the sufferer is entirely unable to reconcile the image others see with their own highly prejudicial impression of their body to the point where it seriously affects their day-to-day life. I myself am a fair way towards the clinical end on this continuum. When I look in a mirror, the first place I look is my face, then my stomach. If a teacher asks me to look in a mirror, any teaching point they were trying to make gets lost in a haze of dysmorphic anxiety.

Even if you don’t have difficulties with seeing yourself negatively when using mirrors, there is still an issue around self-discipline. Put bluntly, it can be really hard to not make yourself look like your idea of your ‘best self’! How many of us will pull in our tummies when we stand in front of a mirror, or do funny things with our shoulders? It can take a lot of willpower to just ‘be yourself’!

Using mirrors – my advice

So should you use a mirror? It depends on the answers to these questions:

  • Can you look at yourself dispassionately?
  • Are you able to reflect on what you see open-mindedly? (no pun intended!)
  • Do you have the discipline to be able to not be ‘your best self’, but be imperfect?
  • And have you developed the observational powers to be able to see yourself doing habitual movements while in activity? Or are you prepared to develop those powers?

If you can answer ‘yes’ to most or all of these questions, then using a mirror could be good for you. But if you feel, like me, that a mirror could be more harm than good, rest assured that you can progress and improve successfully without it.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion 2001, p.26.

[2] For a good book on this topic, read Callaghan, L., O’Connor, A., & Catchpole, C., Body Image Problems and Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Trigger, 2017.

*I’ve used the pronoun ‘he’ deliberately here. Frequently I use ‘she’, but I don’t want to give the impression that all females suffer from BDD. Also, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that males don’t suffer from it. Anyone can have an issue with their self image.

Image from Pixabay.

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

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

It’s not just about the hours

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

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

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

Principles for overnight success: Analysis

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

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

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

Principles for overnight success: Evaluation

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Martin, op.cit.,  p.51.

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

A dreadful secret about Alexander Technique and pain issues

Alexander Technique and pain issues…

The secret? You don’t notice when it stops hurting.

A story.

As a very young teacher, I worked with a student who had severe sciatic pain. It would cause the student to spend sometimes days in bed, and severely curtailed the person’s quality of life. I gave them weekly lessons – we’d agreed 10. At lesson 7, the student said at the very start that they didn’t feel they were getting any benefit from the lessons.

I asked about why they’d started lessons. “To help me deal with my sciatic pain.” And how was that pain? “Oh, that vanished weeks ago.” Had the student done anything else in that time that would have made such a dramatic difference? “No, just these lessons.” Had their quality of life improved? “I’ve been moving pots around in the garden this morning.” Could the student have done that before taking the lessons? “Well… No. No, probably not. But I still don’t see what benefit I’m getting from these lessons.”

The student had made huge changes to the way they were moving (and thinking about moving), but once the changes were made, they didn’t think about how debilitating their condition had been before. The student was too busy having fun in the garden!

Selective forgetting: we are geared towards health

When people come to the Alexander Technique with pain issues, they (understandably) hope that the lessons will deal with the pain. And they really want it to do the job quickly. And sometimes dramatic changes really do happen very quickly, and are really noticeable. But when often the change is a little more gradual, we sometimes fall into a cognitive trap that is there to help us, but also gets in the way of us celebrating success: selective forgetting.

What do I mean? Well, when things change gradually, we don’t notice them change. The incremental effect is huge, but day-to-day the changes fall below our ‘just noticeable difference’ threshold, and we forget. It’s a bit like when my son was small, and he said ‘ambliance’ instead of ‘ambulance’. There was a day when he used ‘ambliance’ for the last time, but I couldn’t tell you when it was. Or reading to my son: I would read stories to him every night when he was young. Now he is 14, and I don’t read to him any more; it gradually dwindled and ceased. I didn’t pick a day on the calendar and say, ‘this is the final day for reading aloud to my son’. There was such a day, but I didn’t notice it go by.

Change is like that. Even with sometimes quite severe pain issues, students won’t notice when the difficulty stops. They’re too busy having fun with all the new things they can do. My student didn’t really remember how bad the sciatic pain was, because they were too busy tidying their (much-loved) garden. My music students are too busy learning new repertoire to notice that the use issue that had held them back, isn’t holding them back any more.

They are too busy having fun.

Alexander Technique and pain: getting out of the groove

My music students and my gardening student had something in common – they were stuck in a groove. They were used to thinking in moving in certain ways that didn’t help them. But it really doesn’t take much to change that situation. FM Alexander writes:

The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when set in action, slides along the familiar, well-worn path; but when once it is lifted out of the groove, it is astonishing how easily it may be directed. At first it will have a tendency to return to its old manner of working by means of one mechanical unintelligent operation, but the groove soon fills, and although thereafter we may be able to use the old path if we choose, we are no longer bound to it.[1]

I would add that, not only are we not bound to the old path, but we are so full of the excitement of finding new paths that we don’t even bother looking at the old one!

What does this mean for our old habitual ways of doing things (and the discomfort we caused ourselves)? There’s a day when the discomfort stops, but you probably won’t even see it. You’ll experience the challenge through the period while things change, and you’ll probably be frustrated that they aren’t completely better. But I have to warn you that, because things change gradually and the moments of discomfort and frustration become fewer, you probably won’t notice when they stop.

You’ll be too busy having fun.

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat, p.67.

Big questions: are Alexander Technique lessons expensive? Why not?

Are Alexander Technique lessons expensive?

I noticed a conversation on Twitter recently where two friends were discussing Alexander Technique lessons. One had just been for a lesson and enjoyed it, but was not likely to go back. They both agreed that it was ‘too expensive’.

This got me thinking: are Alexander Technique lessons expensive, and if so, why? And are they really ‘too expensive’? I’ve got three reasons why lessons cost money, and I’ve got a challenge to your thinking. Are you ready?! Read on…

Alexander Technique teachers are professionals

Good Alexander Technique teachers are professionals who have worked very hard to be qualified, and who continue to work hard to improve their skills.

I trained for four years part time. Others from different training schools train for three years part time, but under a different scheduling structure. That’s a lot of time. I learned FM Alexander’s books inside out. I gained a good grounding in basic anatomy and psychology. I learned hands-on techniques and many other vital teaching skills. I had to pass a slew of exams, including a practical exam, and log a large number of training lessons.

I hold public liability insurance and professional indemnity insurance. I am the member of a professional teachers’ association, and I have registered under the voluntary regulator the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), because this ensures that my students know that I keep to high publicly-available standards. I am also a member of a union (Equity) and am a registered practitioner with the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM). I am required by both my professional association and CNHC (voluntary regulator) to do Continuing Professional Development every year.

Most teachers charge much the same rate per hour as a music teacher. I admit to charging a little more, but I have a fair few years of teaching experience behind me, as well as professional theatre training and music training. When it comes to working with performers or dealing with performance nerves, I really know what I’m talking about.

Most wouldn’t think twice about paying the same to a chiropractor, a massage therapist or an osteopath. When FM Alexander moved to England from Australia in 1904, he charged the same as a Harley Street professional, because he wanted his clients to take his lessons seriously. Some people pay significantly more on a regular basis to have their hair cut or their nails done! When you consider the training and expertise that you recruit when you come to a teacher, Alexander Technique lessons start to look like pretty good value for money.

We are in the business of improvement.

We’re not in the business of making people feel good. We also aren’t concerned with dealing with the structural after-effects of injury or trauma. I can’t necessarily speak for others, but as an AT teacher I help people to learn how to use themselves more effectively. I help them be more efficient so that their minds and bodies are better integrated, their movement easier, and their wellbeing greater. In short, I help people stop pulling themselves around in all the little ways that don’t cause any pain or harm in themselves, but when added together and done consistently over time can lead to a whole bunch of trouble.

I just don’t know of any other discipline that can help you learn to use your body more efficiently no matter what situation you find yourself in. It might be tempting to spend the money on a new pair of high heels; it’s a professional like me who can help you to walk in heels so that you look stunningly elegant.

We want you to be independent.

And I do this in a series of lessons. If you have clear goals and apply yourself between lessons, you can learn quickly and the number of lessons you need will likely be few. It’s part of my job to get you to be able to reason your own way through any situation you find yourself in, so that you can succeed with style and panache. Some of my students come, learn what they need, and then go away and apply it. Others come more regularly, or over a longer period, because they find value in continued self improvement. As with any other service, you take what you need.

My challenge to you.

In short, I’m a professional, trained and under (voluntary) regulation. I work hard to help my students prevent the poor physical use that leads to strain injuries and other related nastiness. I help them succeed and feel free to be more creative, whether on a stage or at their office desk. And I help them feel more in control of themselves and their lives. Some of my students have 1:1 Alexander Technique lessons; some come to groups; some learn via Skype. All of them improve and grow.

But only you can decide if you value your wellbeing, your daily activities, and your beloved pastimes enough to bear the expense.

It’s up to you.

Feeling stuck on a problem? Try making an experiment.

make an experimentIf you’re stuck – if you’ve got a problem and you can’t see an easy way out – can you design an experiment? For example, if you’re not sure about whether you are struggling over that semiquaver passage because of fingerings or because of uncertainty about the notes, how could you decide?

The Alexander Technique IS making an experiment

When I ask them, people tell me all sorts of ideas about what the Alexander Technique is about. Some think the AT is all about nice feelings, or all about theory. Or standing up straight (it’s not!). Some people think it’s about having things done to you, like some kind of therapy. But it’s actually based on experimentation. In the opening chapter to his 1932 book The Use of the Self, Alexander described his technique as

“practical experimentation upon the living human being.” [1]

In other words, making hypotheses and finding ways to test them is not just practical – it’s a fundamental part of how Alexander Technique can help you.

I have a student who had had an injury to one of her hips, and knew that she was probably using it gingerly. But how could she tell exactly how differently she used her (once) injured right leg compared to her left? By coincidence, she was given not one but two pedometers by kind friends. And she created an experiment. She put one pedometer on her left leg, and one on her once-injured right. At the end of the day the left pedometer registered around 900 steps, but the right one only registered 400ish.

Proof? Not yet – the pedometer might be faulty. So the next day she followed the same routine, but swapped the pedometers to the opposite legs. The result? The left one registered 900 steps again, and the right one only 400ish. My student had proof that she was doing something very different with her once-injured right leg. Once she had that proof, she could begin to think of ways to change things.

Making an experiment – FM’s approach

So how do we do it? I suggest we try following FM’s example. When he was trying to work out how to solve the vocal problems that threatened his career, FM said that he , FM followed these steps:

He collected his facts. He knew that reciting brought on hoarseness. He knew that normal speaking did not cause the same problems. By observing the patterns, he could see clear differences between the two different forms of speaking.

He made a hypothesis. Based on his observations, FM concluded that he must be doing something different with his vocal mechanisms while reciting that was harmful, compared to what he was doing when speaking normally. It fitted the observations, but it was still just a hypothesis – he needed to find a way to prove if what he suspected was true.

He designed a test. He watched himself speaking in front of a mirror, first just speaking normally, and then reciting. He repeated these steps, to make sure that his observations were accurate. And from these, he was able to prove, interestingly, that his hypothesis was actually false![2] From there, he could design new experiments based on his new knowledge.

And that’s the point. If FM had tried to fix things without forming a hypothesis or making an experiment, he would have been using trial and error – it would have been sheer luck if he’d solved his problems. Luck is fine, but it doesn’t help you the next time a similar problem shows up. When you make an experiment, you are following clearly defined steps, which means that you’ll be able to follow your reasoning again at a later date. You won’t constantly be reinventing the wheel; or worse, just guessing.

Making an experiment: the steps

So if you want to know what is causing your problem and make steps to solve it, follow this simple procedure:

  1. Collect your facts
  2. Make a hypothesis
  3. Design a way to test your hypothesis
  4. Have fun.

Don’t forget step 4 – that’s what it’s all about, really!

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.22.

[2] ibid., pp.25-6.

Big questions: can I learn Alexander Technique without hands-on?

Jennifer Mackerras teaching

Anyone who has had an Alexander Technique lesson is likely to have experienced the teacher using their hands during the lesson process. Hands-on guidance is one of the tools used by Alexander Technique teachers to help their students change and improve. But there are always debates about whether it is possible to teach without the use of hands – on Skype, for example. For some, the entire concept of Alexander Technique without hands-on is anathema. For others, it is a poor second-best option. For others, it is the necessary way to learn. But who is right, and can you learn as effectively? Let’s think about it…

Alexander Technique and hands

It’s a fairly normal and traditional aspect of Alexander Technique lessons that the teacher will use their hands to give some form of gentle guidance to a student. In a previous post, I described Alexander hands-on as being a means of making it increasingly impossible for a student to carry on with the unhelpful movement behaviours they indulge in; they become aware of what they are doing, and can choose to stop. In this description of Alexander hands-on, we can think of what the teacher is doing as being a kind of psycho-physical disruptor. I help the student disrupt their old way of thinking, and aid them in finding a better way of going about things.

Practical obstacles

In-person lessons with hands-on are great. But they aren’t possible for everyone. Some students live too far away from a teacher to have in-person lessons. And I have encountered many students who simply don’t like being touched; some in certain areas, and some not at all! Some people, for example those on the continuum of autism-related disorders, have significant sensory issues, and being touched is either very stressful or actually painful. Are we really going to tell these people that they aren’t allowed to have lessons unless they submit to something that they may find intensely uncomfortable?

When faced with the choice of no exposure to Alexander Technique at all, versus Alexander Technique without hands-on, the latter starts looking like a great option.

Use of hands in the Alexander Technique

The use of hands-on techniques has had a privileged place in Alexander Technique training and philosophy for a long time now. Some people even go so far as to say that use of hands with a student is essential, or it isn’t an AT lesson. According to this view, the student hasn’t actually learned anything unless hands have been used.[1]

But… We have cases of teachers and students who have learned without the benefit of anyone placing hands upon them. FM Alexander himself would be the classic first example! I think he turned out pretty well, and from his own description he didn’t use hands-on techniques on himself (he did spend a lot of time in front of mirrors).[2] Similarly, FM’s brother AR Alexander was a fine and well-respected teacher. AR famously only had 6 lessons, and none of those involved use of hands.[3]

Ultimately, whether or not you think the use of hands is essential in a lesson comes down to what you think the main job of the Alexander Technique is. If you think that its primary task is to bring an improved sensory awareness to the student, then the use of hands would be near indispensable. And there are a significant number of teachers around who believe that sensory awareness is vital, and that hands are therefore essential.

But this isn’t the main job of the Alexander Technique as FM described it. He said that the “centre and backbone” of his theory and practice was “that the conscious mind must be quickened” (in the sense of being made more alive).[4] Teacher Frank Pierce Jones described it as bringing a practical intelligence into the things that you are doing.[5] If the main task of an Alexander Technique teacher is to improve a student’s psycho-physical wellbeing by improving their ability to reason and direct themselves in activity, then anything that furthers that goal would be a useful technique to use. Hands would be useful, but not essential. Imitation and demonstration would be good, but not essential. Talking and questioning would be good, but still not essential – probably…

So, Alexander Technique without hands-on?

Here’s my point of view, and it’s the basis on which I teach:

Are hands-on techniques good? Yes.

Can you learn without them? Yes.

As long as I do whatever I can to challenge your erroneous ideas, using whatever tools I have available, and as long as you are willing to do the work, you can learn the Alexander Technique.

[1] MacDonald, P., The Alexander Technique As I See It, Rahula, Brighton, 1989, pp.8-9. I don’t think I’m doing a disservice to MacDonald by citing him here. I certainly think that MacDonald’s statement here (and elsewhere) suggests that he did believe hands were essential.

[2] See the first chapter of The Use of the Self for all the mirror references. Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, pp.26-7.

[3] Jones, F.P., Freedom to Change, 3rd ed., London, Mouritz, 1997, p.18.

Edward Maisel says in his introduction to his compilation of Alexander’s writings called The Resurrection of the Body that FM and AR were teaching with purely verbal instruction when they set up their teaching practice in London in 1904; hands-on techniques were clearly developed after AR had his 6 lessons. Maisel, E., The Resurrection of the Body, Shambhala, Boston, 1986, p. xxvii.

[4]  Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat complete ed., p.39.

[5] Jones, op.cit., p.2.

Why playing challenging material is important

Jennifer Mackerras (teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol) playing recorder

“I just want to play freely – I don’t want to feel uncomfortable”

Often as musicians, we find ourselves playing challenging material – something that is just a little beyond where we feel comfortable. That’s certainly true as we are learning an instrument. I think it’s also true in other areas: I’ve found while training for my next 10km race, often the running that my training programme requires involves me feeling a bit pushed.

And we can have ambivalent reactions to that feeling of discomfort when playing challenging material. Working with amateur musicians, particularly, I often hear the desire to feel comfortable while playing. People want to play easily – they want it to be flowing. They want to be able to ‘switch off’ a little bit and enjoy themselves. They certainly don’t want to feel ‘on the edge’!

Certainly, we don’t want to be ‘on the edge’ all the time. I think it’s important that we rest, and that we take the time to revisit material so that we CAN take a step back and enjoy our music-making (or training…).

On the other hand, I’ve read some material recently that gives good solid evidence for why playing challenging material – at least some of the time – is important for our growth and creativity.

Playing challenging material helps us gain mastery

When we work on playing challenging material, we are effectively improving our ‘neural networks’. Particularly with complex physical skills like driving a car, playing sports, dancing, or playing a musical instrument, there are too many lines of thought happening at once for them all to be controllable in working memory. When we practise we link parts of the skill together into ‘chunks’ that enable us to streamline how many things we actually need to process. [1]

Mastery in pretty much any field could be defined (in part) by how effectively the performer in question has created ‘chunks’ that help them carry out their skill. Psychologist Adriaan de Groot found this when he studied the ability of novice and master chess players to recreate a chess board from memory. The masters could do it easily, but only if the boards resembled patterns from a real game. If the pieces were random, they did no better than the novices. The chess masters didn’t have better memories – they simply had more experience of more boards. They could divide what they saw into chunks for easy use. [2]

If we work on creating chunks of information by consistently working on challenging ourselves with new and trickier material, we can improve our performance, too.

Playing challenging material helps us expand our limits

The improvement of mastery from creating chunks alone can help us expand our limits so that we can do/play more challenging material. But we may be expanding our limits in another way, too. In her book Cure, author Jo Marchant describes the ‘central governor’ theory of physical exertion: the concept that we all have a ‘limiter’ in our brains that prevents us from exerting ourselves beyond safe levels. Many believe that particular kinds of physical training – like short-burst high intensity interval training – help to retrain the central governor so that we can exert ourselves a little further.[3] But what if this is true on a psychological level, too?

Psychologist Wendy Mendes studies the effect of changes of attitude to stressful situations on our sympathetic nervous systems. Mendes has found that, put very simply, how we mentally approach a challenging situation determines how stressed we get. If we look on a challenging situation as scary, we will have a larger and longer-lasting adrenaline response than if we look on the same situation as exciting.[4]

As FM Alexander found when investigating his own vocal problems, we can often have inaccurate concepts of what it is that we are doing. We can think we are doing an activity in a certain way, but actually be doing it very differently to how we imagine! [5] This is equally true of activities or material we find challenging. What if the challenge isn’t actually in the activity itself, but exists purely in the way that we perceive it?

If, therefore, we accustom ourselves to testing our limits by playing challenging material, we are improving our ability to mentally approach challenge. We will be better able to cope under pressure.

Accept the challenge, but accept it wisely

A bit of a challenge, then, is a good thing. It helps us achieve mastery, and enables us to expand our concept of where our limits might lie. It gives us experience that will enable us to cope better under pressure. Just remember to be mindful that the challenge you accept is also realistic. A newbie mountain climber should probably not choose Everest for their first major challenge. Even a relatively skilled pianist might be biting off more than they can chew if they choose some works by Liszt (or virtually anything by Alkan!).

So make sure the challenge pushes you a bit, and then work at it. The results might astonish you.

 

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Penguin, Kindle ed., p.55.

[2] Katwala, A., The Athletic Brain, London, Simon & Schuster 2016, p.33f.

[3] Marchant, J., Cure, Edinburgh, Canongate, 2016, p.80.

[4] ibid., p.171.

[5] Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.33.

Misdirected effort? How to get back on track.

Misdirected effort requires us to stop and think againAre you running into a brick wall in the practice room, out on the tennis court, or on the pitch? Do you find yourself working on something, but to no avail? It is very likely that you are suffering from a case of misdirected effort!

Misdirected effort: a case study!

High school English was once of the most frustrating experiences of my life. I was studying for my HSC (sort of the equivalent of the UK A levels), and I really wanted to improve my marks in my English essays. But it didn’t seem to matter how many extra hours of study I put in – my marks never really got any better.

Have you had an experience like that? I have had similar experiences as a musician, and my students certainly have reported frustrations in a similar vein. It’s annoying not to see improvement. Lack of progress can be utterly demoralising. And often the problem could be solved so very easily.

The question we fail to ask

Back in high school English class, I failed to ask myself a really important question, mostly because I was too busy reading literary criticism texts to improve my scores. My students fail to ask themselves this too, again because they are too focussed on what they are doing. I’ve known sportsmen, even maths and science students who missed this question too.

‘Am I directing my effort to the right place?’

According to Prof Barbara Oakley, this phenomenon even has a name: the Einstellung effect. It’s where an idea that you already have in mind prevents you from finding a better idea or solution.[1] In effect, you are so wedded to one way of working that any other doesn’t even have a chance of entering your head!

Why do we suffer from misdirected effort?

But why do we behave in this way? According to FM Alexander, it comes down to our belief systems. He said in 1923,

“We all think and act (except when forced to do otherwise) in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.”[2]

Now it might seem obvious to say that people will think and act according to the make-up of their genes, beliefs and life experience, but note the word he uses to describe them: peculiarities. He isn’t being pejorative or mean – he’s just saying that sometimes we don’t believe things that are hugely sensible. We construct ideas about what we can and can’t do based on experiences (which we may have misinterpreted at the time), memories (which we may not have recalled accurately), and things we’ve picked up from all manner of places (and which may not be true).[3]

So if you think about it, it is hardly surprising that sometimes we get stuck on a particular idea or course of action, and are thoroughly unable to even see that we are stuck!

Solutions

The key to getting unstuck is to develop the mental discipline of stepping back and asking yourself if there is something that you are doing that is getting in your way. This was the very first question that Alexander asked himself when he wanted to solve his vocal hoarseness, and it’s a great question for us all to use.[4]

Marga Biller, project director of Harvard’s Learning Innovations Laboratory, came up with these four questions that I think expand on Alexander’s question in useful ways. They were originally intended for teachers dealing with organisation change, but I think these questions are great for anyone. Here they are:

  1. Do I need to think, behave, do or perceive in a new way?
  2. Is there previous learning that is getting in the way of my thinking, behaving or perceiving in new ways?
  3. Is what I am trying to learn a threat/challenge to my identity, to how I see myself or how I see the world?
  4. Would trying harder give me the results I am looking for or might it create more entrenchment?[5]

If we ask ourselves these questions, we have the opportunity to see what mental block we have put in front of ourselves. Once we know how we are blocking ourselves, we will know what areas to work upon so that we can direct our effort more effectively. This may mean approaching a difficult semi-quaver passage from the tail end instead of from the beginning, and working backwards. It may mean slowing down, and that may feel odd. It may mean stopping and taking a walk!

When we ask ourselves questions, we give ourselves the opportunity to change. And that is the key to sustained improvement.

 

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, Kindle ed., p.19 (loc 345)

[2] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat, p.304.

[3] Levitin, D., The Organized Mind, Penguin, p.50.

[4] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, Orion, p.25.

[5] https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/06/23/why-unlearning-old-habits-is-an-essential-step-for-innovation/

Noticing the good: improvement through generating a string of successful experiences

Create a string of successful experiences - a bit like bunting flags!When you practice or perform, do you notice good things you’ve done, or just the things that didn’t go well?

It may not surprise you to know that, in my experience, classical musicians are THE WORST at noticing good things about their performance. They can tell me about intonation problems, about missed position shifts, cracked notes, fluffed semi quavers. Rarely can they tell me about the beautiful phrasing, the breath control, the semi quavers that went by without a hitch. In fact, if I mention the good things I heard, most of the time they didn’t even notice them. It is as if they never even happened!

A lot of musical training is centred around noticing and correcting the things that didn’t work. And don’t get me wrong, it makes complete sense to notice our mistakes and to attempt to correct them. But if we notice only the things that went badly, we risk setting ourselves up for a hard time, because we will actually be conspiring with the way our brains operate to work against ourselves.

Why your brain prefers bad things

First of all, our brains are, evolutionarily speaking, really well designed for noticing things that are potentially bad or dangerous. The amygdala – one of the most primitive parts of the brain – acts a bit like a security system to keep us away from danger.[1] Our attentional filter also contains some pretty impressive neuro-chemical systems that are designed to break through whatever we are doing to keep us out of danger. You might have experienced this if you’ve ever been driving on the motorway, and only realised you’d let your mind wander after your brain has jerked you back from drifting into the next lane![2]

Because these systems are neuro-chemically based, and because the brain is a plastic (changeable) thing, by paying more attention to the things that worry us (like intonation problems or fluffed semiquavers) we can actually cause our attentional systems and our amygdala to fire more immediately at errors. We can, in effect, train ourselves to be more anxious!

Memory encoding bear traps

Additionally, when we practice a piece of music, for example, we are trying to create stronger memory traces in our brains so that the information can be retrieved more easily.[3] But what is encoded depends on what we most pay attention to and how strong the emotional connection was (either positive or negative).[4] My memories of the ultrasound department of my local hospital, for example, are primarily of the location of the toilets. I was pregnant and having my 20 week scan, and I had been told to drink water so the scan would be more effective. Increased water consumption and a squashed bladder coloured my perceptions and my memories of the space!

In a similar way, it seems likely that our memories of a piece of music will be coloured by what we paid attention to while we learned it. If all we thought about was the stuff that didn’t work or seemed hard, then that is most likely what we will continue to remember.

Learning to notice good things: creating a string of successful experiences

So the key, then, is to dampen down the effect of the amygdala, and to take advantage of our brain’s abilities in encoding memories by giving it the right stuff to remember. We want to encode positive experiences, not negative ones. And FM Alexander has something to say about how to do this.

A few weeks ago, my lovely colleague Karen Evans and I discussed that one of our favourite sections of FM Alexander’s books is his comment that “confidence is born of success, not of failure.”[5] It looks like a simple phrase – because it is. It looks like a truism, too. Obviously, we will be more confident about something if we have success at it. But it really is worth unpacking the significance of Alexander’s comment.

What he is telling us is that, if we want to have confidence in the tasks we perform, we need to have had a string of successful experiences. This string of successful experiences doesn’t just make us feel good about ourselves; it gives us a solid foundation of understanding that, because we have completed the task successfully in the past, if we follow the same process, we will have similar success the next time. Our mission, then, is to generate that string of successful experiences.

And we won’t be able to even begin generating that string of successful experiences if we aren’t even able to notice the things that went well. I’ll talk next week about how we begin to structure our practice sessions so that we can generate a string of successful experiences. This week, though, I want to set you one simple task. Each time you practice, can you write down three things that went well? Can you begin each practice session with the intention to notice the good things about your performance, as well as the bad?

Give it a go, and I’ll be back next week with how we can utilise our new-found skills to construct a confidence-building string of successful experiences.

 

[1] Bella Merlin, Facing the Fear, London, Nick Hern Books, 2016, p.20.

[2] Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind, London, Penguin, 2015, p.47.

[3] Barbara Oakley, Mindshift, New York, Tarcher Perigee, 2017, p.34.

[4] Levitin, p.52.

[5] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384.

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