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

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

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

Little better than chance?

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

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

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

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

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

Two areas of attack to keep success going

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

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

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

Alexander recognised two things:

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

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

Keep success going with mental practice

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

Work on your general co-ordination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of falling as a mental attitude

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

Outdated or mistaken ideas about what is normal:

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

Language use:

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

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

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

Personal attitude of mind.

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

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

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

This is why FM Alexander stated that:

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

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

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

Cello intonation as a mental attitude

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

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

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

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

Anticipation of fear? Planning for excellence

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

Expertise and mistakes: how many mistakes does it take to become really good?

How many mistakes does it take to become an expert at something?

Millennium Stadium in Cardiff full of people - what if the number of people represented how many mistakes you make to become an expert.

I recently went to speak to a group of primary school students in Bristol about what it is like to be a musician. The Year 5 students were brilliant. I played this piece for them, and then asked them what they thought a person would need to do to be able to play a piece like that. What does it take to become really proficient at playing an instrument.

Passion, Practice…

First, the Year 5 children said, you would need to really love what you were doing. Then, they correctly identified practice as one of the primary things a person would need to do to become really proficient at anything. When asked what good practice would look and sound like, they even talked about:

  • Little bits every day
  • Working most on the hard bits
  • Working in sections
  • Playing things really slowly

And then one of them said, “you would need to look at the mistakes you were making and see if you could find out why you were making them, because then you could stop them.”

… And Mistakes

Realising that I was in the presence of true geniuses of growth mindset thinking, I asked them about mistakes. They all told me that mistakes are actually really good, because they tell you the things that you don’t know yet, or can’t completely do yet.

At this point I was strongly reminded of FM Alexander’s words about his struggles and experimentations to find a solution to his vocal problems. At one point he says:

I practised patiently month after month, as I had been doing hitherto, with varying experiences of success and failure, but without much enlightenment. In time, however, I profited by these experiences… [1]

And again later in his investigation:

I would give the new directions in front of the mirror for long periods together, for successive days and weeks and sometimes even months, without attempting to ‘do’ them, and the experience I gained in giving these directions proved of great value when the time came for me to consider how to put them into practice. [2]

Alexander here very clearly views his mistakes and his experiments as valuable, even when they don’t work. Not only that, but he was prepared to persevere with them even for months without knowing if he was having any success!

How many mistakes?

The children in this Bristol school were impressing me with their attitude towards experimentation and mistakes. So I decided to test them. “Do you think I made any mistakes in that piece I played today?” I asked them. The majority correctly guessed that yes, I had.

And then I asked them, “How many mistakes do you think I’ve made over my playing career, since I picked up a recorder for the first time?”

One of the children put his hand in the air immediately. I called on him. “A whole STADIUM of mistakes!” he said.

What a great image. A whole stadium of mistakes. I instantly thought of Wembley, or Twickenham. I thought about the stadium in Cardiff, which I walk past every time I go to Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to teach. Imagine every seat full, and every person in those seats representing a mistake. Every seat an opportunity to interact. A whole stadium of opportunities to learn and grow.

Is your stadium full yet?

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.32.

[2] ibid., p.41.

Image: Wikimedia Commons. No machine-readable author provided. Whoelse~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [Public domain]

Shoulders and breathing: should my shoulders move when I breathe in?

I’ve been working with a fair number of singers of late, and I’ve noticed afresh just how much stress and uncertainty exists around what shoulders should do during breathing. When you breathe in, should they move up, or should they stay still? Of course, it isn’t just singers who worry about their breathing; any musician who plays wind or brass may have similar concerns. I’ve worked with sportspeople who also wonder about the relationship between shoulders and breathing.

An image of the shoulders, as we wonder about the relationship of shoulders and breathing.

I’m going to suggest that we work from the protocol created by FM Alexander in his ‘Evolution of a Technique'[1], and see if we can work out what these structures should do.

Analyse the conditions (of use) present

In this phase we analyse what structures are there, and (if there is a physical student in the room) how the student actually uses them in activity. If you are the student – which, for the purposes of today, you are! – then find a mirror and watch yourself breathe for a couple of moments, and note down what you see.

From my blog a couple of weeks ago we know the basic structures behind the breathing mechanism. We know that the ribs move, including the top couple just under the collarbone. (They are raised during inhalation by the scalene muscles)

We also know that the shoulder girdle structures sit over the top of the ribs. The acromioclavicular (or AC) joint is a fixed number of degrees (around 20) but allows for some play as one moves the whole shoulder girdle.

Reason out a means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about.

This is the phase where we reason out a general route towards a better use of ourselves. Let’s have a go at creating a general use of ourselves involving shoulders and breathing.

We know that the ribs move and expand in order to make the pleural cavity larger; we also know that the first two ribs move and raise. We know that the shoulder girdle sits over the ribs. Therefore, it seems logical that the shoulder girdle is also likely to raise during breathing.

But do we actively need to control this? Again, logic would suggest not. As we’ve discussed, there’s not a lot of articulation in the A/C joint, and the first two ribs don’t move a massively long way up. So it seems likely that any movement would be accessory movement – that is, movement that happens to accommodate the body part that is actively moving.

Therefore: we need to pursue a means of breathing that enables the shoulder girdle to passively move.

Project the directions necessary to put the means into effect.

This is where we start creating actual thoughts about what we are going to tell ourselves to initiate movement. Here I want to leave the specifics up to you, but I want you to think about the following ideas:

  • If you include a sentence that involves your shoulders, you will almost certainly activate them BEFORE you turn them off. That’s probably not so helpful! Ironically, possibly the best thing you can do to more effectively handle the relationship between shoulders and breathing is not to think about it actively…
  • You will want to include something to remind yourself that your ribs, chest and back will all experience movement during inhalation and exhalation.
  • You might want to think about what you do with your head and neck as you begin to inhale.

I’m hoping that setting out the question of shoulders and breathing in this way won’t merely give you a simple answer, but also teach something more important. FM Alexander wanted to teach people to think: he wanted us to make our reasoning faculties more alive.[2] If we use the process from his third book, as we have today, we can begin to carry out the kind of thinking that Alexander hoped we would learn to do. And if we do it consistently, maybe our experience both of thinking and of moving will substantially improve.

Let me know how you get on.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.39.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.39.

Image courtesy of yodiyim at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Change to a more constructive performance mindset with one word

Different coloured brains to visualise changing to a more constructive performance mindset.

Can you change from a destructive performance mindset to something more beneficial with just a single word? Is it too good to be true? Put bluntly: is Jen indulging in click bait headlines?

Actually, I’m not. I firmly believe that it is possible to change your mode of thinking away from a performance mindset that is destructive using just one little word. But before I tell you what it is, I want to give a little background on why it works.

Psychophysical unity and performance mindset

Because we are a psychophysical unity, we enact the ideas that we have about ourselves and our abilities physically. And sometimes we may have no real notion of how far the implications of our belief mind extend, until we examine the end result of one of our ideas. FM Alexander gives the example of a student who had made the decision to avoid disagreeable sensations from activities by engaging her mind with pleasant thoughts. Put simply, she avoided putting her whole mind towards anything difficult or taxing, and instead did something akin to daydreaming to avoid any sensation of discomfort. The same student then wondered why it was that she had starting to find it difficult to keep her mind engaged while reading.

I showed her how she had been cultivating a most harmful mental condition, which made concentration on those duties of life which pleased her appear as a necessity. She had been constructing a secret chamber in her mind, as harmful to her general well-being as an undiagnosed tumour might have been to her physical welfare. [1]

Words matter

So the ideas that we have about what we do can have far-reaching consequences. And so often, our ideas can be negative; psychotherapist Philippa Perry in her book How to Stay Sane describes our internal dialogue as being to some degree “toxic chatter” that is loaded with 

hateful thoughts about ourselves and others; unconstructive self-scoldings; pointless pessimism. [2] 

Most of the time we don’t notice the toxic thoughts, and they don’t have a massive impact upon what we are doing. But in a high-stakes situation or a high-stress environment – like a performance – our unhelpful thoughts are likely to have a disproportionate negative impact upon our psychophysical systems.

I see this every time an actor apologises before they run through an audition monologue in class, or a student says ‘I hope I get this right’ before they attempt getting out of a chair. They are getting their apologies in early before a poor performance. And why do they need to do this? Because they assume that a poor performance is likely to occur. They have envisioned it! That is to say, they have constructed for themselves a performance mindset that is highly likely to result in poor performance.

One word that changes everything

The word that changes everything is one I learned in my university theatre training: the word if. Theatre director and acting system creator Constantin Stanislavski used the word ‘if’ as a foundational part of his acting system because it lifted his actors out of actuality and “I to the realm of imagination”:

With this special quality of if … nobody obliged you to believe or not believe anything. Everything is clear, honest and above-board. You are given a question, and you are expected to answer it sincerely and definitely. [3]

Recently I was working with a violinist, who was struggling in the preparations for an upcoming performance. When the person played for me, their intonation was off, their vibrato uncertain. I asked the violinist what they thought of themselves as a musician. “Well, I don’t think I’m any good,” the violinist replied. 

This made me feel very sad. I decided to call on my theatre training and invoke the power of if. I told the violinist I wasn’t going to try to change their belief, but just to ask them to play a little game with me. They agreed, so I continued. “What would it be like,” I asked, “if you really were a good player?”

The violinist’s eyes sparkled, and they played again. It sounded completely different: good intonation, clear tone, strong and appropriate vibrato. It was the clearest example I have ever seen of how just one little word can completely change a person’s mindset, by allowing them to play with thinking differently.

Over to you

Is there something that you believe that isn’t helping you? Do you have a performance mindset that you know holds you back when you go to play or present? Don’t bother trying to believe something different – that sounds like a lot of work and too much stress when you’re close to performance time. Instead, why not harness the power of your imagination? What would it be like if you were confident/capable/great at presenting/totally in control of your material? Imagine what that would be like, and then go out and play. If nothing else, you’ll have given yourself a moment of relaxation instead of stress just before your gig. But you may well surprise yourself with the power of that one little word.

Give it a try.

[1] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, New York, Irdeat, 1997, p.67.

[2] Perry, P., How to Stay Sane, London, Macmillan, 2012, p.26.

[3] Stanislavski, C., An Actor Prepares, trans. E.R. Hapgood, London, Methoden, 1988, pp. 46-47. Author’s italics.

Breath control: ideas for breathing better

Ah, the breath.

A dandelion clock like this one is a great opportunity to play with an out breath!

Breathing is the subject of countless blogs and articles. It is a major topic within yoga, pilates, mindfulness, and goodness knows how many other forms of exercise and bodywork. And why? For the simple reason that so many of us feel we don’t do it very well. And if we feel that our breathing is problematic in ordinary daily life, then it is likely our worries will be amplified (quite literally!) when we put the mouthpiece of an instrument between our lips, or we start to sing or act, or even give a presentation at work.

We need to get to the bottom of our more general issues around breathing. Therefore, today I am going to give you a whistle stop tour of your respiratory system, because it is my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher that we tend to have a lot of inaccurate ideas about what it is and how it works.

Do you know where you breathe?

It sounds like a silly question, but it’s something that is actually really important. Pretty much everyone knows that the air we breathe in goes into our lungs, but after that, all knowledge is up for grabs! Some people lift their shoulders up to their ears when they take a breath. Others try to ‘breathe into their belly’. Some suck their tummy inwards when they breathe (I’ve heard singers describe this as ‘reverse breathing’). But what is anatomically most appropriate?

It’s an important issue, and can cause a lot of issues around unintentional vibrato. So take a second, and put your hands where you think your lungs are.

Did you put them on your chest?

Lungs are surprisingly large: they start just under the collarbone, and go all the way down to the base of the ribs. They have a truly massive surface area, because we need it to be able to hold all the air we would need to take part in serious physical exertion (or, indeed, playing a contrabass recorder). 

Lungs and shoulders

If we think of the lungs as massive sacks for the moment, it seems reasonable that, if the sacks are filling with air, that there would be an expansion involving the ribs and the back. And seeing as the shoulder structures rest over the top of the ribs, it only seems fair that there should be a little accessory motion in the shoulders, too. Note that I say ‘accessory motion’ – raising your shoulders to your ears doesn’t really help you get any more air in your lungs. We don’t end to deliberately lift them, but we shouldn’t be keeping them absolutely still, either.

Diaphragm and belly

The diaphragm is a muscle that you may have head of, and it has an important function in the breathing process. It is the diaphragm contracting downwards that causes the change in pressure in the pleural cavity that starts the process of breathing in. Now, when the diaphragm contracts downwards, it runs into the organs beneath it – primarily the digestive organs. These don’t like being squished, and need to move in order to avoid it. They can’t go downwards, because there’s pelvis in the way, and can’t go backwards because the spine is in the way. So they move outwards as we breathe in – or should do, in a normal breathing pattern.

(If you want to watch a video explaining the system, try this one from Crash Course. The mechanics of lungs and diaphragm are about 5 minutes in)

Breathing control

The trick with breathing is that it is both a hard-wired system (try not breathing, and see what your body does) AND voluntary. That is to say, we can choose to a large degree when and how we breathe. This is good, because it means that we’re able to talk and play musical instruments! But it also means we can impose ideas and beliefs that can really impede the normal action of the respiratory system. Anyone who has done any classical dance training, for example, probably won’t be comfortable with allowing their belly to move outwards, because it conflicts with good form in classical dance. Or if you’re like some of my classical singing Alexander Technique students, you’ve been told so many times that shoulders should not move while breathing that you actively hold them down!

Rediscover your breath

One of the best ways I know to rediscover the whole respiratory system, after doing a bit of research looking at anatomy books and YouTube videos, is to lie down and feel what you do when you breathe. Why lying down? Simply that you’ll get feedback from the floor as to what parts of you are moving (or not), and you may be able to notice changes a little more easily. There’s nothing more mysterious about it than that.

I would suggest lying on your back on the floor, with your feet flat and your knees pointing towards the ceiling. You can put some padding under your head if you like. And breathe. Notice what happens in your chest, shoulders and back. Notice what your belly does. Once you’ve started to acquaint yourself with your breathing patterns, start experimenting with allowing movement through your ribs, back and abdominal region as you breathe in and out.

Jen on the floor investigating her breath control.

It is tempting, too, to focus solely on breathing in. I would strongly recommend that you spend just as much time noticing what happens as you breathe out. Notice which muscles are working, and which ones relax. Experiment with just how much you can get out of your own way and allow your system to do the work for you.

Once you’ve investigated your own breathing, and experimented with what your system does if you leave it alone, you can start to branch out, and notice, for example, what you do in order to breathe in, or to speak. But for now, just enjoy experimenting with your respiratory system, and let me know if you discover anything interesting.

Image of dandelion courtesy of Sivan_Zamir at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image of Jen by Timothy Lanfear.

Whole body vs separate parts : how choosing the right concept changes everything

A cut up apple - whole body or separate parts?

Have your ever seen someone play music, or take part in a sport, and felt as if they were needlessly throwing all of themselves into the activity? Or perhaps you’ve seen (or been) the person who is obsessed with the action of one particular part of the body – possibly because it hurts – to the exclusion of all else. I see both things a lot with the musicians that I work with: the trombone player who uses absolutely every part of her body to move the slide; the pianist who is obsessed with the action of his right thumb.

Both of these characteristics – the ‘kitchen sink’ approach and the ‘laser focus’ on one particular area – stem from correct ideas about the human body, but in both cases they have been taken to unhelpful extremes. So how are we whole, and how are we separate? And how can we change our ideas to think more helpfully about our physical structure?

Body as whole

On the one hand, we are a psycho-physical unity. As FM Alexander said,

it is impossible to separate ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ processes in any form of human activity.[1]

This means that everything is connected – mind and body. And if we decide to change the way we are using one part of our body, because our body is a whole system, everything else must necessarily change around it. This means that taking the body as a whole system is likely to effect better and more effective changes than looking at specifics.

Each request from his teacher to do something, and each injunction not to do something else, means a building-up of a series of specific psycho-physical acts towards the given “end,” namely, learning to write. This means that although the “end” may be gained, the result as a whole will not be as satisfactory as it might be, for nothing will have been done in the way of re-education on a general basis…[2]

Here’s an example of this in practice. A student can come to me with an issue involving arms and hands (when playing a trombone or a saxophone, for example); I work to help them stop muscular tension in their neck and back by perhaps questioning their concept of what they need to do to breathe, or whether they need to use neck muscles to think, and the arm problem vanishes. This is very cool, and looks a little like magic, but is based on the physiologic truth that a change in the musculoskeletal relationships in one part of the body will have ripple effects everywhere else.

Body as separate parts

But things are also separate, and often, like Alexander, I see people who are using themselves in such a way that their whole body is involved in an unhelpful pattern of tension. FM, for example, noticed this in some of his clients who came for help with speech defects:

When he spoke, I also noticed a wrong use of his tongue and lips and certain defects in the use of his head and neck, involving undue depression of the larynx and undue tension of the face and neck muscles. I then pointed out to him that his stutter was not an isolated symptom of wrong use confined to the organs of speech, but that it was associated with other symptoms of wrong use and functioning in other parts of his organism… I went on to explain that … he “stuttered” with many other different parts of his body besides his tongue and lips. [3]

Sometimes I work with musicians who want to use their whole bodies to play their instruments. For example, a trumpet player might use her whole body to raise the instrument up to play, bending backwards with her spine, rather than simply using her arms. If I work with the trumpeter and help her to separate her arms (appendicular structure) from her spine (axial structure) then raising the instrument becomes much easier.

And both things are true. They may look a bit contradictory, but they’re not – they just function on different levels. And we can take advantage of both ideas in order to improve how we’re performing.

Questions to ask yourself.

So if you’re practising, for example, you could ask yourself these questions:

Kitchen sink scenario: Am I using everything to carry out this activity? Could I think a little more about things being separate?

Laser focus scenario: am I thinking of myself too separately, or am I concentrating on separate parts and forgetting the rest of my body?

The extra credit challenge: can I manage to think of things being separate AND hold the idea of being a whole person, all at the same time?

You may find that your ability to play your instrument without crunching into the music stand, or to use a laptop without being sucked into the screen, improves if you play with these ideas. Let me know.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.21.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.233.

[3] Alexander, The Use of the Self, p.70.

Image courtesy of punsaya at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Settling for ‘good enough’ as an antidote to perfectionism

I work with a lot of musicians, so it goes without saying that I work with a lot of people who would describe themselves as perfectionists. Now, I’m not knocking standards in this post – of course we should strive to be the best we can be at what we do. But I am going to attack the particular stream of perfectionism that causes some of us to delay finishing things, or to delay even starting, for fear that we might create something that falls short of impossibly high standards.

Perfectionism as procrastination

For some of us, perfectionism becomes a means of not starting something we’ve said we intend to do. Many writers will tell you about the curse of the empty screen and the tyranny of the blinking cursor. Artists will talk about the fear of the empty paper or canvas. I can vividly remember, as a teenager, being faced with a blank piece of very nice and very expensive art paper in my high school Art class, and being frankly terrified to mark it because I felt in my bones that any mark I made would be terrible.

This fear of being terrible is a key component in the dark side of perfectionism – we want to be perfect, but are inwardly convinced that we are doomed to fail. So we don’t even begin. Note that it is our belief that holds us back, not any actual clear evidence.

Perfectionism as fixed mindset

But how did we end up this way? Toddlers will fall over many times while learning to walk, but we don’t see them not bothering to get up and try again. What happens to change the way we think so dramatically that we begin to fear even the prospect of making mistakes?

This has been a subject of study for a number of psychologists, including Aaron Beck, Carol Dweck, and Angela Duckworth. Beck’s contribution was the foundational insight that the same objective event can be perceived in different ways, depending on the interpretation – the self-talk – of the person involved.[1] In other words, two children can make a mistake on a maths quiz, but one might have a very different interpretation of that mistake to the other. The first might see the error as proof they are ‘no good’ at maths. The second might see the mistake as a cue to try harder in order to succeed next time. Dweck demonstrated in one of her early studies that telling a group of children to ‘try harder next time’ when in a group solving maths problems was far more successful than simply praising them – the praise group were more likely to give up on harder problems, whereas the ‘try harder’ group did exactly that![2]

Whether we are aware of it or not, our self-talk around whether it is okay to make mistakes, or whether we need to be right (perfect) all the time is a belief that is rooted in the examples given to us by parents, school teachers, music teachers, sports coaches, and pretty much any other adult we were around as kids. Children soak up knowledge, but they also soak up beliefs and attitudes. Some of them will be good and useful, and some will be rather more unhelpful.

Alexander’s take on perfectionism

FM Alexander was clear, in his chapter called Incorrect Conception, that a student’s fixed ideas were the cause of most of the student’s difficulties. All those little ideas and beliefs that each one of us has picked up over the years and added into our own little private universe of what is Right and True – these are the things that trip us up.

it is probable that all his former teachers will have instilled into him from his earliest days the idea that when something is wrong, he must do something to try and get it right. Beyond this, he will have been told that, if he is conscientious, he will always try to be right, not wrong, so that this desire to “be right” will have become an obsession in which, as in so many other matters, his conscience must be satisfied.[3]

If our overriding belief is that it is bad to make mistakes, then we’ll do whatever it takes to avoid them. And if we can clothe our fear with the seeming virtue of perfectionism, so much the better. But whether our perfectionism stems from fear of mistakes or a genuine desire to be perfect, what good does it serve us? It stops us from finishing projects, from trying new things. I know of a French exchange student who barely spoke to his English host family, for fear of getting his English wrong. He effectively threw away a tremendous learning experience through fear! Do we really want to make that mistake?

Listen to the new means; make mistakes

The only way out of the perfectionism trap is to start being prepared to make mistakes. It’s a decision, and as a recovering perfectionist myself, I can testify that it isn’t easy. But it’s the way of progress. Allow things to be ‘good enough’ occasionally. And if you’re having lessons in a skill, whether music or sport or something creative, make the experience of listening to what your teacher is telling you and trying it out, no matter how silly you may feel. You may be on the road to great things.[4]

[1] Duckworth, A., Grit, London, Vermilion, 2016, p.175f.
[2] ibid., p.179.
[3] Alexander, F.M., Concstructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat 1997, p.295.
[4] ibid., p.298.

What Google Maps can teach us about ignoring advice.

Have you ever asked for advice, and then ignored it and done what you wanted to anyway? Ignoring advice from experts and teachers isn’t very sensible, but it’s very human, and I think we all do it occasionally.

Google Maps: a paradigm example of ignoring advice

I was reminded of this the other day when out with a friend. My friend used Google Maps to give directions to where we were going, but didn’t follow the directions given. Rather, my friend decided that they knew better than the app and chose their own route – even though we were going to a place neither of us had been before!

It’s very tempting, when faced with a road you know, to use the known road rather than the one that is unfamiliar. But it might not be the best way to where you want to go. And this isn’t just a transportation story, but a metaphor about trying to reach any new goal; and it’s a story that FM Alexander used in one of his very best chapters, called ‘Incorrect Conception’.[1]

So why is ignoring advice so common?

FM Alexander says that we ignore advice because of our own fixed ideas about what we can and can’t do. For example, a singer might have a belief that they need to throw their head backward in order to take a breath. Their teacher might notice this, and work with the singer to encourage them to open their mouth by allowing the jaw to drop. But if the singer is convinced of the necessity of throwing their head backwards, they’ll keep doing it, no matter what their teacher says.

That is to say, they’ll keep doing it… until they don’t.

I once worked with an actor who made a very particular set of muscular contractions in order to use their voice. Every lesson with this student would lead to me highlighting how this set of contractions wasn’t helping the actor’s voice, and the actor saying a variant of ‘But I NEED to do that!’ After months of lessons, I was ready to tell my actor student that I couldn’t help them. As the lesson started, I had my goodbye speech planned. It was that very lesson that the actor exclaimed, “I’ve been doing this really weird muscular thing, and it’s not helping me!” Crisis averted.

It’s hard to take the unknown road, because (of necessity) we don’t know where it leads. We navigate away from all the familiar landmarks. But sometimes we simply must take the unknown road, otherwise we’ll just keep heading to the same old destination.

So if you find yourself going to a teacher and not following their advice, pause. Ask yourself why your are ignoring them. What is it that you are convinced you can’t do? What mental block (or dodgy decision) have you made that might be holding you back?

Your teacher might just be right. Give their advice a go!

[1] The original story is in Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, Irdeat complete ed., p.299.

Image courtesy of taesmileland at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Put your self first: why you should pay attention to your body

Treat your body like a racing car - maintain it. Put your self first!I ran into a lovely ex-student of mine the other day. He’s now an acting student in his second year, and loving it. He told me that before he got into full-time drama school, he couldn’t understand why the pre-College programme I taught on had movement or Alexander Technique classes as part of the curriculum. ‘What’s the point of all this work on my body? I want to act!’ was the way he felt at the time.

It’s a great question. Why bother with Alexander Technique, anyway? Why not skip straight to the acting/music/anything else bit?

‘What’s the point? I just want to act!’

I think a lot of beginning acting and music students are likely to be sympathetic to this heartfelt cry. But it’s wrong, and if we substitute a different kind of activity, we’ll see why. For example, can you imagine Lewis Hamilton saying, ‘What’s the point of maintaining the car? I just want to drive’? Or Roger Federer saying, ‘What’s the point of looking after my back? I just want to play tennis’?

I think we can agree that this would never happen! Lewis Hamilton needs his car to function perfectly so that he can perform to his very best. Roger Federer needs his racquets, shoes, knees, shoulders – everything – to be in optimum shape so that he can play tennis to the best of his ability. And I’m sure that both of these top performing athletes would agree that they also need their mental processes to be in tip-top shape, too. They understand that they need to put ‘self first’.

Put your self first

If you’re a musician, you’re a musical athlete. You need everything to work to its best. Same thing if you’re an actor: you need your psycho-physical self to be ready to mould into anyone or anything that you are required to play. Same thing if you’re a chiropractor, or an office worker, or a teacher: you need your mind and body to be as ready as it can be for the tasks you ask it to perform.

The Alexander Technique helps you sort out all the things that you do to yourself that stop you from performing optimally. It gives you tools to transcend your own self-imposed limitations, and gives you options for getting around or coping with limitations imposed from outside (like illness, or bad office furniture).

My ex-student now understands why it’s so important to put your self first. Without a well-honed mechanism, you don’t have reliable tools to create the wonderful things you intend. He now loves his movement and Alexander Technique classes.

Be like my ex-student – learn to put your self first!

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net