How powerful is a decision?

Anyone who studies Alexander Technique learns that decisions are powerful. Decisions that we make determine how we see the world. They also determine what we think we can and can’t do. 

An example.

proficiency in bass clef is a decision as I play a very large recorder

As a young musician, I learned bass clef quite a number of years after I became proficient with treble clef. Even after decades of playing, bass clef still doesn’t feel as comfortable as treble clef to play.

When I am gigging with Pink Noise Recorder Quartet, I frequently play the contrabass recorder, which obviously requires me to read bass clef. I do it a lot, and I do it well (even if I do say so myself!). 

I don’t own a nice bass recorder, so tend not to play bass parts; those with really classy instruments take those parts. But every so often I borrow someone else’s bass and play, reading from the bass clef. And for the longest time I would struggle a bit and make mistakes, believing that because I don’t have much experience playing the bass recorder (and by extension, the bass clef) I will struggle to read the notes.

And then one rehearsal I suddenly realised… The way I read bass clef easily to play contrabass recorder? It’s the same bass clef that I play with difficulty when I play bass.

It’s the same clef. And the same notes. With the same fingering.

I changed my decision about bass clef being hard. Suddenly my bass playing improved substantially.

I am aware that I probably sound very silly. But that’s the nature of so many self-limiting decisions. How often do we make a choice about how we’re going to act or behave and then realise down the line that our choice is illogical or a bit silly?

FM Alexander knew the power of a decision. In 1923 he wrote:

A teaching experience of over twenty-five years in a psycho-physical sphere has given me a very real knowledge of the psycho-physical difficulties which stand in the way of many adults who need re-education and co-ordination, and, as the result of this experience, I have no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.[1]

I know from my own experience both as a student and teacher of the Alexander Technique that FM is quite right! So my question to you is this: what little decision or belief are you holding onto that keeps you from performing the way you want?

[1] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT 1997, p.294.

Photograph of Pink Noise Recorder Quartet members by Matthew Mackerras.

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

Self responsibility – why an Alexander Technique teacher shouldn’t tell you what to do

The pathway to self responsibilityMy son is now a teenager and eager to become more his own person. The other day we were discussing independence, and he said, “I just wish you could spoon-feed me independence a little more quickly!” 

Then he wondered why I was laughing.

Self responsibility

Self responsibility is one of the key concepts of the Alexander Technique. It’s actually the first major principle that I teach from Evolution of a Technique, the piece of writing where FM Alexander describes how he created his work. FM experienced vocal problems that threatened his career and received no lasting solution from his doctor. After two weeks vocal rest, FM again lost his voice onstage during a particularly important engagement. He recounted his conversation with the doctor:

 “Is it not fair, then,” I asked him, “to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?” He thought a moment and said “Yes, that must be so.” “Can you tell me, then,” I asked him, “what it was that I did that caused the trouble?” He frankly admitted that he could not. “Very well,” I replied, “if that is so, I must try to find out for myself.”[1]

When FM Alexander decided to discover for himself what he was doing with his vocal mechanisms that was causing his hoarseness, he was taking responsibility for his own problems. And every student that walks through my door does pretty much the same thing: they’ve decided that whatever is holding them back is a self-imposed restriction, and they want my help in getting rid of it.

My job, then, is to construct a pathway that will help my student in solving her own problems. My task is to make sure she has all the tools and concepts she needs to be able to get rid of her own unhelpful thought and movement behaviours, and even to construct new and better ones. It isn’t my job to tell my student where she is going wrong, or to solve her problems for her, even if I can see them more clearly than she does. Because my job isn’t to impose myself on my student’s life and thinking – my job is to help her become so adept at reasoning her way out of unhelpful behaviours and into more effective ones, that she doesn’t need me any more.

Self responsibility leads to independence

Independence is, in fact, what Alexander said was his ultimate goal. In the preface to his first book, FM said:

I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself.[2]

FM wanted us all to be so adept at thinking our way out of difficulty and into efficiency that there would be no need for Alexander Technique teachers! We might be a little way off that yet, but it’s still my goal for every student that I teach. i want each and every student to be able to do the work for themselves, and my task each time is to create a pathway – individual to that student – that will help them achieve that goal.

So I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’ll ask a lot of questions, and I’ll give a lot of support when necessary, but I’m always going to make sure that you take responsibility for yourself.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Irdeat ed., p.412.

[2] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.5.

Does your concept of education hold you back from brilliance?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?Last time, you’ll remember that we discussed how, in early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. As I said last time, this is entirely understandable. If a student has come to me, it’s probably because they’re not happy with what they’re doing at the moment, and they want to fix it so the trouble they’re experiencing goes away.

The train of thought the student has typically goes like this:

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical (and emotional) consequences of statement: 

  • There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting
  • I am doing it the wrong way.
  • (Bad me)

Last time I talked about the logical fallacy behind trying to find a One Right Way to sit. Next time I’ll talk about the self-criticism implied by the ‘(Bad me}’ part of the thought train. And in this article I want to talk about how we often hold a view of education that holds us back. It’s implicit in the thought train above, and it gets in the way of us improving.

Let’s get started.

Education – what it so often appears to be

“There is a right way and (at least one) wrong way of sitting”

Most of us have been through some sort of school system, and I think most of us have at some point been exposed to the idea of the ‘right answer’. A typical scenario runs a bit like this:

A teacher asks a question of a class of children. There is an immediate sea of hands. Who will be labelled the brightest child? The one who puts up their hand and answers the question not simply correctly, but faster than anyone else.

And what happens to the student who puts up their hand but doesn’t give the answer the teacher is expecting? At best, they are told they are incorrect. At worst, the child is put down in such a way that they feel belittled and ashamed.

Of course, when we get a bit older we realise that not all of life works this way. We learn that sometimes there may be multiple right answers, or no right answer at all. But how many of us still cling in our hearts to the simplistic model of ‘the one right answer’? And how many of us live our lives with that model in the back of our minds, ruling our interactions?

If a student asks me for the Right Way to sit, they are unwittingly conforming to this model. It might be okay for arithmetic, but it doesn’t function well when we look at the multiplicity of variables we encounter every time we want to sit. [1]

So what other options are there?

Education – what it could be

Actually, what if the heart of education was about the concept of options? What if the job of a teacher is to give a student the tools so that she can discover the options in a given circumstance, and then reason out the best course of action?

And to my mind that’s what good education should be about: giving students the tools so that they can work things out for themselves. So often our experience of schooling systems has bludgeoned us into believing that education is about being told what to do. I much prefer FM Alexander’s concept of teaching:

… by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself, and should not be crammed with other people’s ideas, or one side only of a controversial subject. Why should not the child’s powers of intelligence be trained? [2]

If we persist in looking for the one ‘right way’, we blind ourselves to the given circumstances before us. We end up denying ourselves important information and risk settling for something less than optimal in our efforts to Be Right. How silly that the quest for perfection should cause limitation and a settling for something that  doesn’t fulfil the needs of the moment.

So don’t settle. Look at the circumstances in front of you, and work from there. Work out what is best for you, using your “latent powers of originality.” You won’t be Right – you’ll be something far more interesting. You’ll be adventuring.

Have fun.

[1] chair height, chair slope, chair back, floor surface, shoes, space in front of and around chair…

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the complete Irdeat ed., p.88.

Image by Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos.net

Does internet-based learning work?

internet-based learningCan you learn effectively from a teacher who isn’t in the room with you?

I’ve been wondering a lot recently about internet-based learning, and decided to investigate it further. Two recent events motivated me.

  1. Internet-based learning – singing.

My son likes surfing YouTube looking for interesting music types to follow. One of the people he found was Boyinaband, who is famous for his song Don’t Stay in School. Boyinaband decided to try learning how to sing over a 30 day period, and used apps and YouTube videos as his primary means of instruction.

Watching the video he made detailing his adventures in singing, I fell to wondering: what would it be like trying to learn a new skill from the internet? What would it be like not having a teacher in the room with me?

  1. Internet-based learning – Alexander Technique

I, like many Alexander Technique teachers, offer lessons via Skype. I am convinced that this is a viable and valuable learning pathway for many students. I was, however, uncomfortable that I hadn’t tried some form of practical skill-based internet learning myself, and thought that I should be consistent with my beliefs and give internet-based learning a try. (I’ve done lots of more academic courses on the internet-based Coursera platform, and found them excellent.)

Added to this, I know that my students watch Alexander Technique-related videos that are available on YouTube, and that like all things available on that platform, these can be variable in quality! Is it possible to learn, not just via an electronic platform from a teacher who isn’t in the room with you, but also from instructional videos where the teacher can’t even see you?

My own 30 day internet learning challenge

Twitter friends and colleagues had been learning yoga using YouTube videos made by Adriene Mishler of Yoga with Adriene  and saying good things about it. I’d never tried yoga before and wanted to work on strength for the running events I’ve entered this season – it seemed like the perfect opportunity. So I embarked on Adriene’s series 30 Days of Yoga. It was a remarkable experience.

What I learned

  • Yoga looks easy and gentle and flowing. It isn’t easy. Sometimes you are working so hard you shake with exertion. It’s also incredibly good fun.
  • It’s really hard to know if you’re doing the exercise or the pose correctly. You think you’re doing okay, but if you’re a beginner it can be really hard to know if you’re really bending in the right spots. Sometimes it can also feel like it’s going faster than your brain can reason out. Mind you, I know students who have had exactly that experience in face-to-face yoga classes…
  • You form an emotional bond with the teacher. You begin to regard the teacher as a friend and ally, even though intellectually you know that they have never met you and don’t actually know you exist! It got to the point where, if Adriene gave some praise, I felt like it was genuinely directed at me.

Recommendations

If you’re going to learn something by YouTube, check around and get recommendations from friends and colleagues. I was really lucky to find a yoga teacher as good as Adriene. Boyinaband, by contrast, viewed videos from teachers who gave advice that I thought was potentially unsound.

Good teachers will know and predict the errors their unseen students will make. Adriene is really good at this. She gives plenty of advice about how to position oneself in each pose, and sometimes it felt like she had predicted my mistakes. She did this by having a long background in teaching face-to-face classes – she has first-hand knowledge of what mistakes students are likely to make. So making sure your online teacher has a good background in face-to-face teaching might be a really good idea.

Personality is key. Adriene has a lovely open personality and rather engagingly does not edit out her mistakes. By the end of the 30 days I felt like she was my genuine teacher who genuinely saw me, rather than just a person on a screen. It is no accident that Adriene has developed a massive online yoga community. An engaging personality may also be a danger, though. Just because someone is engaging doesn’t mean they know their stuff. You have to do your due diligence and make sure the teacher is well-qualified.

Try to photograph or video yourself. You’ll soon learn if you’re doing things the way the teacher intends – you may even be pleasantly surprised! One of the delights of Boyinaband’s account of his singing challenge is the ‘before’ and ‘after’ snippets. I don’t have any such pictures, alas, that I can share (I’m too shy). However, one of my Twitter friends did video herself doing yoga, and was able to use it to improve her form very effectively.

Alexander Technique is a great pre-requisite for other forms of internet-based learning. I found that I was able to follow Adriene’s instructions pretty clearly, and I think that my AT knowledge played a huge part in that. I know where the muscles and joints are, and what the normal ranges of motion should be. I also am fairly good at designing a process for how I’m going to move, and then carrying out my process with accuracy. I can well imagine that someone without that background of understanding may well fall into patterns of poor use that could impede the learning process.

And all of those points are relevant for learning Alexander Technique by distance learning, too. Go by recommendations. Check out the teacher’s background. Make sure that you feel comfortable with them. If you do these things (and make sure that your technology set-up is up to the task), you’ll have a really good internet-based learning experience.

Don’t trust teachers implicitly!

trust teachers but don't follow them blindlyShould you trust teachers implicitly? Should you accept the advice of a professional unconditionally?

I met a person recently who had been advised by a doctor that, in order to avoid upsetting the arthritis in their knees, they should avoid going up stairs and not carry anything heavy. The person not only trusted the advice, but seemed to ‘help it along’. Without being aware of it, they made the doctor’s advice pertinent by placing extra strain on their knees. They would almost push themselves down into the floor at the base of the stairs, as if to ensure that their knees were in the least beneficial position for the physical act of climbing the stairs. Their knees would hurt, thus proving the doctor’s advice was sound. I stress: they weren’t aware of the physical movement, but they were very clear on their belief in the doctor’s advice.

Belief creates physical movement

Students in my classes are well used to me remarking that the way we describe things and the language we use to describe them are incredibly important. If we describe our hip joints as being somewhere on the sides of the body and up quite high, then that’s where we’ll move. (This isn’t where the hip joint is, by the way!) But this applies just as much, if not more, to advice we are given by teachers and medical practitioners. If we trust a teacher or other professional, we are likely to listen to their advice, and sometimes a little more unconditionally than is advisable. We can fall into one of these traps:

1. Blindly following advice without understanding it

FM Alexander fell into this trap when he had acting lessons with Mr James Cathcart. FM was told to ‘take hold of the floor with his feet’ and conscientiously tried to do so. He never asked Mr Cathcart what he meant, or what the instruction was trying to achieve. Later, FM realised that the tension in his feet was contributing to the whole-body misuse that culminated in him losing his voice onstage.[1]

2. Thinking we are following the advice, but really doing something different

My music students often speak of their instrument teacher telling them to, for example, use their bow in a particular way on their violins. They go away and think they are doing what their teacher told them, only to find out in the lesson the following week that they’ve been doing it completely wrongly. How frustrating!

3. Following the advice so carefully that we copy the movement behaviours of the person giving it

Many years ago, I had a lecturer who wanted to remind his class that thinking required us to get past a degree of mental inertia. He was fond of saying, “Thinking hurts.” But it wasn’t just a metaphor – he would actually jam his head back and down into his torso as he said it. But because he was a well-like and influential teacher, his class started to take on board not just the words, but the accompanying physical gesture. We started suffering recurring headaches!

4. Following advice that is just plain wrong.

I think we can probably all think of examples of this!

What to do?

The advice from me is this: don’t check your brain in at the door! Hold all advice lightly – even the advice from me. Interrogate everything. Work out what you think is most likely to be true, but even then, continue to gently question and test the limits of what you think is true. FM would call this being ‘open-minded‘. Don’t trust teachers implicitly, but don’t blindly believe your own ideas, either. If you can manage it, you’ll find that the act of reasoning out why you’re being told what you’re told will help you to improve faster and more efficiently.

But that’s just my idea. Go and test it for yourself.

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

Photograph of Grayson Perry artwork by Jennifer Mackerras

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.

What running a half marathon taught me about doing the work.

Me reaping the rewards of doing the work

Last Sunday I ran my first ever half marathon. I’m going to write about it, not because I’m proud of myself (although I am), and not because I want praise. I learned something about the nature of goals and work, and about how we mess ourselves up by misrepresenting them. I’m writing about my experience because I think it simultaneously destroys a couple of myths and demonstrates a really important principle.

Myth 1: “you must be really amazing.”

No, I’m not. Five or six years ago I would have had trouble running for a bus. I’ve been overweight and unfit, and I’m definitely not naturally sporty. I just decided to change, and then did the work to make it happen.

Similarly, FM Alexander wasn’t special. He was just some guy from small-town Tasmania. But he wanted to sort out his vocal problems, so he decided to do the work to make that happen.

Myth 2: “a goal like that is so big, I could never do it.”

This myth is tricky, because it is wrong on two levels. First of all, what looks like the goal (the half marathon) isn’t the true motivating factor. I didn’t wake up one morning and just decide to do a half marathon, any more than FM Alexander just decided to found a whole new field of psycho-physical education. He wanted to act again without losing his voice; I wanted to gain a level of fitness to ensure I’ll stay healthy as I get older. For FM, creating what we now call the Alexander Technique was something that happened because he became fascinated with the process of what he was doing to solve his vocal problems. For me, entering a half marathon happened because I got fascinated by distance running, and because having a race in the calendar helps me to stay disciplined with my training. In both cases, the big goal isn’t actually the true motivating factor. FM and I had intrinsic motivations that were way more important.

The second way this myth bites is that it assumes that the Half Marathon (or whatever the apparent goal is) is too big and scary to achieve. Someone new to running will look at the 13.1 miles, and see an overwhelmingly long course. Which it is.

But it isn’t impossible. It’s just a big goal, which needs to be broken down into more achievable chunks. You take advice. You work consistently. And by working the smaller steps, the larger goal takes care of itself. This is what FM was getting at when he said:

Only time and experience in the working out of the technique will convince him that where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.[1]

Principle: You can do the work.

What I’ve learned, and what I hope I’m modelling here, is that anyone can do the work.

It’s worth repeating: ANYONE CAN DO THE WORK.

Human beings are amazing. We can achieve amazing things, all of us. But certain conditions need to be met before we can unleash our amazingness upon the world.

  • Have a WHY. Motivation is really important, and intrinsic motivation is the best kind. I wanted to improve my fitness so I can maintain my health as I get older. FM wanted to keep acting – a profession he loved.
  • Have a goal. I chose a half marathon (and previously, some 10k races). FM wanted to recite and maintain his vocal condition.
  • Use the tools to hand. FM used a mirror or three. I found a fantastic website that tailor-made a training programme for me. I talked to friends, and gathered advice. Look at what is around that can help you.
  • Get help and external accountability. I made sure that friends knew what I was up to, so that they would ask me how the training was going. FM checked his physical condition with friends and doctors.[2]
  • Keep going. It takes a certain level of persistence and mental discipline to keep going when things get difficult. One of my favourite sentences in the whole of Evolution of a Technique is when FM says, “Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that the problem was hopeless.”[3] Even when FM’s investigations were going apparently very badly, he kept working. This is where your intrinsic motivation becomes really important. I had plenty of rubbish training runs, but I still kept going.
  • Be prepared to laugh at yourself. My teacher’s teacher, Marjorie Barstow, advocated it, and I think it’s an important point. Take the process seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.

Running a long race isn’t for everyone. But I think we all have ideas and goals and dreams, and often we cheat ourselves out of them. What would happen if you chose to honour them instead, and do the work?

[1] FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living, Irdeat ed., p.587.

[2] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.28.

[3] ibid., p.36.

Mix it up! Why changing your routines makes you better

changing your routines gets you out of grooves

Chiropractors who only work from one side of the bench.

Music students who use the same practice room at the same time every day.

Runners who follow the same route every training run.

People who park in the same parking space every single day.

What do these people have in common?

They’ve fallen into a groove.

“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.” [1]

Grooves can be good. They help us to get through every day of our lives – they speed up decision making and get us through our days faster. But…The problem with the groove is that, while you’re in it, you’re not thinking hugely effectively. You may be following an established protocol very easily, but you won’t necessarily have analysed whether that protocol is really best for your needs. Sometimes your protocol will be sound, but at other times it will be staggeringly inappropriate, and you’ll be too busy in your groove to notice.

For example, it may look like a time saving measure for a physical therapist or chiropractor to stick to one side of the table for making adjustments on patients. They don’t have to move as much, and they get really good at adjustments on that side. But it comes at a price: they risk being less comfortable if they have to work in a different space where they are forced to use their ‘wrong’ side. And they risk muscle fatigue and injury to the side that is working harder.

Similarly, the music students I work with tend to love the routine of just block-booking a practice room as far into the future as the computer system will allow. They book the same room, and the same time. It gives a rhythm to their day-to-day life, and makes practice as normal a part of the day as eating or sleeping. But this also comes at a cost. When these students come to do recitals, they have to perform in very different rooms at different times of day. At a time when they already have the pressure of grading, they also leave themselves open to the disorientation of new spaces and different circadian rhythms, a new acoustic, and a lack of the environmental cues that helped them to memorise their pieces. The added load from all these new stimuli can be enough to hinder them from performing as well as they could.

Nonplussed by the unexpected

FM Alexander knew this only too well. In his first book he recounts a story of a young man who had been given an introduction to one of FM’s students, a prominent businessman. The young man hoped for a job, but was stunned when the businessman shouted at him, “What the devil do you know about business?”

“Of course,” the young man continued, “I was so unnerved that I could not even collect my thoughts and I was so flurried that I could not answer his further questions. He told me he hadn’t any position to suit me.” “My dear young man,” I remarked, “why did you allow Mr. —– to insult you? Why did you not remonstrate with him …” “I was so upset by his sudden attack, and I didn’t expect to be treated in such a way.” “Just so,” I replied, “you were nonplussed by the unexpected. But I hope this will be a lesson to you. Mr. —– was only testing you, and he wants men who are capable of dealing with unexpected events and situations in his business.”[2]

We need to be ready for the unexpected. We need to be able to deal with stimuli that could cause fear, and the way to do this is through  knowingly and deliberately breaking your grooves, in order that you can improve your physical and mental flexibility and your tolerance of stress.

Physical and Mental flexibility

I know it seems fairly obvious, but unthinkingly carrying out the same physical protocols day in, day out, is not likely to be hugely beneficial for your physical health. You run the risk of never actually taking even a moment to STOP, and allow your body to properly rest.

But this is true mentally, too. Trapping yourself in an unthinking groove won’t help you mentally either. To take the musical example, if you mix up the practice room you use and the time of day you practise, you are giving yourself low-stakes opportunities to experience different acoustics and different experiences of playing. This gives you the mental flexibility to be able to deal with changes of space, time and audience when you perform. This means that you’ll be far less likely to be phased by a grumpy examiner, or that audience member rustling a cough sweet wrapper for an eternity!

Small amounts of stress are good

Deliberately changing your routines will also leave you less open to amygdala hijack. This is where your reasoning centres become unable to inhibit the fear reaction from the primitive parts of your brain, making it difficult to think or remember anything.[3] By choosing to mix things up, you are helping your brain to develop the reasoning power and mental discipline to control your amygdala more effectively. There is an increasing body of evidence that choosing to undergo small amounts of stress helps to prime your brain for improved performance by causing the production of new nerve cells that help you to be more alert. [4]

So try changing your routines. Find ways of subtly placing yourself under a modest (and short-lived) amount of stress.

  • If you are doing an audition, for example, choose to play in lots of different spaces with different acoustics, and choose to play in front of people.
  • If you’re doing a half marathon (like I will be soon), choose to run at different times of day, or after doing some heavy mental work, in order to stretch your mental discipline.
  • If you are involved in an occupation where it is tempting to do things one way all the time, see if you can find a way to change your movement patterns.

Your mind and your body will thank you for it.

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

[2] ibid., pp.140-141.

[3] Katwala,A., The Athletic Brain, London, Simon & Schuster 2016, p.123.

[4] http://news.berkeley.edu/2013/04/16/researchers-find-out-why-some-stress-is-good-for-you/

Big questions: can the right chair prevent back pain?

sitting comfortably

Can using the right chair prevent back pain?

If I was given a pound for every time I’ve been asked this question (or a variant), I’d be fairly comfortably off by now. In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, one of the most common niggling worries for people from all walks of life is sitting. They have to do a lot of it (computers, cars, offices, orchestra rehearsals…) and are convinced that they aren’t doing it very well. Sometimes they even experience discomfort, or downright pain from sitting. If they just bought the right chair, would the problem go away?

Is this you? Are you wondering the same thing? Could buying the right chair prevent back pain?

I can’t give you a straight yes or no answer, unfortunately, because it’s a more complex issue than it might seem on the surface. So I’m going to give you two reasons why I say no, buying the new chair won’t help. But I also give you one reason why yes, thinking about the chair really will help you.

No the first: injury and disease

The first and most important thing to say is that if you have a diagnosed injury or a disease that causes your back pain, just buying a new chair won’t solve the issue. It might give you some relief, and some Alexander Technique lessons could help you move more efficiently to mitigate the effects of the condition. But a chair can’t cure you, and only a chair salesperson in need of a good commission would allow you to think so. Can the right chair prevent back pain? No, not if your problem is illness or injury.

But, I hear you say, I’m not injured. Should I go out and buy a nice new chair? Here’s why the answer is still no…

No the second: it isn’t the chair, it’s the way you sit in it!

It isn’t just me who gets asked frequently about furniture. FM Alexander had the exact same problem. And my answer to the question is the same as his: furniture isn’t the issue. It’s the way we use it that causes us problems. If someone has sat poorly (using too much muscular effort in the wrong places) on a cheap office chair for many months or years, is the purchase of a fancy new chair suddenly going to change her sitting habits? Does someone with poor dietary habits change his entire processes around food just because he purchased a slightly tight-fitting new suit? Probably not.

This is why FM Alexander was so concerned that we should have the mental tools to adapt ourselves to our environment. This particular passage I’m about to quote is primarily about child education, but if it’s good enough for kids, it’s probably true for the adults too:

What we need to to is not to educate our school furniture, but to educate our children. Give a child the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not suffer discomfort, not develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon.*

My aim as an Alexander Technique teacher is to give you the tools so that you are able to organise yourself to be comfortable on ANY chair. If that interests you, then maybe you should talk to me about having some lessons.

But sometimes you do need to look at the furniture, too…

Did you see the caveat in FM’s statement? He says that the child should be able to adapt within reasonable limits. In other words, there may be times and places where you will need to take careful note of the chair or office set-up. After all, if you’re going to be using your desk for eight hours every day, it is clearly common sense to make sure that you are giving yourself the best conditions you can, within constraints of budget, time and common sense. Humans are adaptable, but that doesn’t mean we should live with something that is just not fit for purpose.

One of my friends once found herself with neck ache, even though she had a lovely new desk set-up at work. I asked her to tell me about it. It was a corner desk, she said, with lots of lovely room for all her books and notes right in front of her. The monitor was to her left, and the keyboard to her right.

I’ll say that again. Her monitor was to her left, and her keyboard to her right.

No wonder she was getting neck ache! When she changed her keyboard to the other side, the neck ache went away.

The moral of the story: there is no such thing as the perfect chair. The right chair won’t prevent discomfort; learning how to sit easily and efficiently is a much better solution. But if you are like my friend, you may want to take a good look at your office set-up too!

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT ed.,  p.92.
Image of Ai WeiWei’s Marble Chair (outside the Royal Academy) by Jennifer Mackerras