Why it pays to look beyond the obvious (ouchy) thing

Look beyond the obvious - like a sticking-out finger while playing recorder. Me playing a treble recorder.

If you have a problem in a particular area – say, your bowing arm if you play a stringed instrument – it becomes very tempting to focus on that area exclusively. I see this a lot with musicians, which is why I focus on them first, but it isn’t exclusively a musician problem. I have lost count of the number of times students have come into lessons wanting to talk about why, when they use the computer, their mouse hand hurts (either the whole hand, or just a finger/region). So it often surprises my students when I start my lesson plan by looking at what they are doing in other areas. I am, in fact, doing the thing I want to teach them to do: to look beyond the obvious – past the problem area – to what else is going on.

Today I want to discuss the relationship of direct vs indirect, and explain why you might want to expand your focus in order to sort out the difficulty you may be experiencing. Whether it is music, sports, or the office keyboard, if you look beyond the obvious you might find fascinating things!

The near-myth of the specific problem

We often spend our time functioning as though all our body parts were just separate lumps of matter, not really connected to us, that we can effect and impact separately. I suspect this is the logic that lies behind the idea that we can move and influence body parts separately, creating specific ‘fixes’ for specific problems we find affecting us. For example, I remember as a young recorder player being concerned at how my left little finger would fly around in the air as I played. It stretched out away from the instrument like a maiden aunt holding a cup of tea; I was convinced it was throwing the balance of my whole hand off kilter.

So I trained myself to keep it resting on the body of the instrument. Initially this seemed like a great solution. Then I began to wonder why my left ring finger was not moving freely, and why I sometimes got a tired/sore forearm after playing.

I had noticed a very specific fault, and then constructed a solution that was specific to the parts of me that I felt were not right. I was just looking at the little finger, and not at everything else. But I thought it was just me that did that sort of thing, so I was both amazed and relieved to discover FM Alexander had done exactly the same thing. When he first tried to find a solution to his vocal hoarseness, he looked only at what he was doing with his head and neck. It was a matter of great importance when he realised that his torso was also affected![1]

Of course, we are not all separate body parts, and it is folly to think that we can move or change one part without there being some sort of knock-on effect elsewhere (even if it is only small). Because we are a psycho-physical unity, any one change has the potential to affect everything else. But it also has an interesting extra twist: if we notice a problem in one area, we might not be seeing the cause, merely an indirect expression or consequence of something else.

Let me explain.

When FM decided to look beyond the obvious

When FM Alexander first observed himself reciting, he saw that he did three things: he pulled back his head, depressed his larynx, and sucked in breath. Now it could have been entirely possible that the three things were unconnected, but Alexander was smart enough to realise that it was highly likely they were all part of one big ‘something wrong’. So he went looking to see which one he could actually prevent. After long experimentation, he found something truly fascinating:

I found that when reciting I could not by direct means prevent the sucking in of breath or the depressing of the larynx, but that I could to some extent prevent the pulling back of the head. This led me to a discovery which turned out to be of great importance, namely, that when I succeeded in preventing the pulling back of the head, this tended indirectly to check the sucking in of breath and the depressing of the larynx. [2]

Even more impressively, the condition of his vocal organs improved! 

What Alexander found was that by directly stopping one of the symptoms, he could stop the others. In other words, when he broke the beginning of the chain of causality, the rest of the chain ceased to exist. This is particularly impressive when one considers that FM was fairly certain that it was the depressing of the larynx that was actually causing the hoarseness.[3]

Practical steps for us

We can take some very practical ideas away from this.

  1. If something hurts or is not feeling right somehow, take a good look at your whole body. You might find other indications or symptoms of things ‘not right’.
  2. The place that bugs us might not be the root cause of the trouble. It might just be the end of a chain of causality. Try changing or preventing misuse that you’ve spotted in other areas, and see if that helps.
  3. We are working with observing and changing things, and that’s really hard to do in the middle of a large project at work, or while learning complex musical repertoire. You will need to set aside time to think about this properly.

Alexander had success when he looked and experimented; you can, too. Just be prepared to look beyond the thing that’s screaming at you the loudest!

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.29.

[2] ibid., p.27f.

[3] ibid., 29.

Photograph by Matthew Mackerras, 2018.

Performance process vs desire to ‘perform’

Jennifer trying to follow her performance process.

I did a gig with (one of) my recorder group(s) recently, and it brought to the surface something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I noticed myself, while playing, wanting to somehow ‘perform’ – to signal to the audience that I was having a good time. Every time I did, I made a mistake. When I followed my performance process – that is, when I just played the piece in front of me and didn’t think about how the work was being received – the performance was better. It led me to a clear understanding of this idea:

There is a difference between sticking to the process and creating a performance that the audience can embrace, and wanting to ‘perform’. The latter is a different process. At best, it will run alongside the process that actually does lead to the performance; at worst, it will detract from it.

What is performance process?

So what do I mean by ‘performance process’? Quite simply, I mean all acts that contribute to a performer creating a performance of a work. Some people do this without a lot of formal training; they go about certain activities – like studying the play text, or working on sections of their music score – and without being aware of it, create a cohesive and coherent understanding of the work that they then present to an audience. Others learn how to do these processes: they learn text study, or score reading, or counterpoint and harmony. They learn how to rehearse and practice effectively, and they learn how to take the work they’ve done in the rehearsal room onto the stage.

In either case, whether intuitive or formally trained, I would argue that the performer is, when creating a process, following a line of research and reasoning. They are creating an interpretation of a work, and the means by which they will take that interpretation fo the stage. The questions I’ve given below might form broad categories for investigation while creating the performance process:

  • What information can I find to help me decide what the work means?
  • What do I want to convey to an audience?
  • What do I need to do in order to give an audience everything they need so that they can piece together my understanding of the work?

You might notice that these questions are very similar in conception to the steps FM Alexander suggested we follow when constructing a process:

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

(2) to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about;

(3) to project consciously the directions required for putting these means into effect.[1]

Wanting to ‘perform’ defined

I want to draw a clear distinction between the work done creating and following a performance process with what happens when a performer starts “wanting to ‘perform’.” Here are some of the motivating factors that I notice in myself when I slip into this mindset.

Wanting to perform:

  • Helping the work along
  • Showing the audience I’m enjoying myself
  • Showing the audience what I want them to know
  • Making the audience feel stuff
  • Making the audience enjoy the music.

I think a lot of us will have experienced these desires at some point in our performing careers. It might not have occurred to you before, but they are all examples of departing from the performance process that you have designed, and doing something different instead. That’s why I made mistakes as soon as I started trying to show the audience that I was having fun: I had stopped following the process that we might call ‘Performing the piece’, and instead creating a new process that we might call ‘Look how much fun I’m having!’

As I look at all those motivating factors written down, I can see that there’s a common factor in all of them: lack of trust. Let’s examine that a bit further.

Trust issues in not sticking to performance process

There are three major trust issues that I can identify when I indulge my desire to ‘perform’ a work. One is about not trusting the work, one is around not trusting the audience, and the final one is about not trusting myself. Let’s take them in turn.

Helping the work along.

If I try to ‘help a work along’, I’m tacitly admitting that it needs my help in order to be fulfilling to an audience. If a work is good, I don’t need to help it along; it will contain everything necessary for an audience to enjoy it if I just do the work of playing the notes/motivations/saying the words with the right inflections in the right places. If I try to ‘do a bit more’ to get the work across, then I’m effectively saying that I don’t believe the work has enough integrity to be able to stand for itself. If it doesn’t have integrity, I probably shouldn’t be performing it at all!

Not trusting an audience to understand or enjoy the work for themselves.

If I want an audience to see how much I’m enjoying playing, then I am imposing my enjoyment upon them; I am overstepping a boundary. We can’t make the audience feel anything, and we can’t make them feel any more strongly if we force our personal feelings upon them. Any actor or comedian will tell you what happens if an audience in a comedy is a bit slow and the actors start to try to make the audience laugh: the audience typically will ‘sit on its hands’ and place itself in opposition to the performers. Then nobody has any fun!

Neither can I force an understanding upon an audience. I can give them enough information so that they can easily make the logical/emotive leaps that I hope they’ll make, but again, I am not responsible for someone else’s understanding. This has a distinct parallel with teaching: you can put information in front of a student, but it is up to the student to do the work of integrating that information into understanding.

Not trusting myself

It might not be obvious at first glance, but if I switch from the ‘Perform the piece’ process to ‘Look how much fun I’m having’, I’ve actually made a decision that my original process wasn’t adequate. Not only have I made that call mid-performance, but I’ve made it with no evidence that I’m correct. I’ve chickened out – dropped everything I’ve rehearsed in order to make up a new process ‘on the fly’.

FM Alexander had a similar issue when he was experimenting with reasoning and the creation of a new process for speaking in order to solve his vocal problems. He realised that he needed to overcome the desire not to ‘feel wrong’:

This meant that I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my “end” must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well. [2]

If I drop the process I’ve rehearsed mid-performance, I am not trusting in all the hard work I’ve done. How silly that sounds! 

And how human. It takes mental discipline to stick to the process we’ve designed, even in the face of our own adrenaline-induced confidence wobbles. But we can do it. Alexander solved his vocal issues; we can stick with our rehearsed process trust our smart, understanding and emotionally receptive audience, and have a really successful gig. We can choose to perform the work, rather than perform ourselves performing the work. And if we do, from my own experience, things tend to go quite well!

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1984, p.39.

[2] ibid., p.45.

Photograph of Pink Noise by Benjamin Westley.

Keep success going: don’t chase results!

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

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

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

We start to look at the results.

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

Chasing results

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

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

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

Sticking to process and choosing not to chase results

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

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

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

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

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

[2] ibid.

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

One simple tip to help you appear more confident onstage

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

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

The three harmful tendencies

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

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

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

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

Opening the mouth vs opening the head

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

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

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

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

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

Appear more confident onstage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little better than chance?

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

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

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

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

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

Two areas of attack to keep success going

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

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

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

Alexander recognised two things:

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

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

Keep success going with mental practice

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

Work on your general co-ordination.

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

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

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

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

How do you practise Alexander Technique?

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

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

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

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

We think we know what practising looks like.

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

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

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

Working indirectly

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

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

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

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

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

Simple answer: yes. For two reasons:

Changing point of view

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

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

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

Getting out of thought grooves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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