One simple tip to help you appear more confident onstage

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

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

The three harmful tendencies

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

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

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

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

Opening the mouth vs opening the head

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

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

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

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

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

Appear more confident onstage

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

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

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

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

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

Base tension levels too high? It may trigger stage fright

Base tension levels might be too high, like holding these hand grips!

If you suffer from performance anxiety, you may want to consider if you have a problem with base tension levels.

Everyone has a base level of tension or a collection of muscular movements – a ‘set’ – that they take into every activity. FM noticed this right at the beginning of his investigations into his own vocal hoarseness. He found that he made three actions with his head in relation with his body: he pulled back his head, depressed his larynx, and sucked in breath. He first noticed himself doing these things while reciting. Soon, though, he found he did them to a smaller degree in normal speaking, too.[1]

When we are engaged in an activity that requires more of us – like reciting a particularly dramatic piece of Shakespeare, or playing in front of an audience – we do our habitual ‘set’ of muscular tension more. FM realised that the three ‘harmful tendencies’ that he noticed in himself were relatively small and didn’t have any particular effect during normal speaking. When he recited, however, the three tendencies were larger and more pronounced, and he would become hoarse while he was acting.

I recited again and again in front of the mirror and found that the three tendencies I had already noticed became especially marked when I was reciting passages in which unusual demands were made upon my voice … what I did in ordinary speaking caused no noticeable harm, while what I did in reciting to meet any unusual demands on my voice brought about an acute condition of hoarseness.[2]

FM’s three harmful tendencies had an immediate and negative effect upon his vocal prowess. But the physical tensions that we carry around with us on a daily basis may prove problematic when we are about to perform in a very different way.

The Yerkes-Dodson law

The Yerkes-Dodson Law has been around since 1908, and describes the relationship between arousal and performance. Put simply, if you are engaged in a fairly demanding task (like performing) and want your performance level to be high, then you need to hit a ‘sweet spot’ of arousal. You don’t want to not care or not feel anything at all, but you also don’t want your system to be so bombarded with stimuli and so full of stress hormones that you’re hitting the limit of what you can handle.

If your base tension levels are high, you sit at the top of the Yerkes-Dodson grave U curve.

We know that stress hormones are likely to create a level of arousal that could impact upon our performance – ageing parents, unruly kids, a difficult job are all likely to take their toll. Sian Beilock explains:

People with chronic stress in their lives are likely to sit at the top of the U under normal conditions, so when they are faced with the added pressure of public speaking they may be more likely to perform poorly than those who normally sit on the uphill side. If a spouse who is anything but a calming entity is put into the mix, the consequences can be disastrous.[3]

Physical stimuli matter too

We often forget, though, that physical factors are likely to do the same thing. Trainer Don Clark tells a wonderful story about a colleague who was asked to give a training session for a meat packing company, and was given for his training room a cold storage area! The trainees had so much excess environmental arousal from the cold room that the trainer had to work very hard to reduce the arousal factors within his course so that everyone could learn effectively.[4]

Physical stimuli might not be all external, however. The base levels of tension that we take with us everywhere in the course of our day are likely to have just as big an impact. Think about it: FM Alexander noticed that he pulled his head back MORE when he was about to recite some demanding Shakespeare. Similarly, we are likely to increase our base tension levels in response to the stimulus of an impending performance:

  • I walk around every day with (for example) very tight trapezius muscles and resultant raised shoulders. I’m already at a fairly high level of physical arousal. My system is irritable (used as a technical term here).
  • I raise my shoulders a little every time I talk, or walk, or buy an ice cream.
  • If I am about to do something more demanding – like perform in a concert – I will do the shoulder raising even more.
  • This shoulder raising is likely to have a negative impact upon my ability to perform. This is because it sends my arousal level into the danger zone where my system is overloaded.

The solution? Reduce your base tension levels!

There are a lot of things that can help: breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, forms of therapy like CBT all help. But Alexander Technique is uniquely a tool that helps you to notice and change your habitual use of yourself. You can look in a mirror like FM did, and see if you can spot and then prevent the physical movements that you make as a precursor to every activity. Or you can book in to see someone like me. We can work on reducing your base tension levels using a combination of discussion and hands-on guidance.

If you are more relaxed – physically and mentally – on a daily basis, you will be more able to cope with the increased demands upon your system that performing involves. And then you’ll be better able to give the truly captivating performance that you most desire.

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.26.

[2] ibid., p.27.

[3] Beilock, S., Choke, London, Constable, 2011, p.316.

[4] Clark, D.R. (2010). Arousal and Performance. Retrieved from http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/performance/arousal.html. Retrieved on 27 June 2019.

Image of hand-grips Elfer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Image of Yerkes-Dodson graph from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes–Dodson_law, accessed 27 June 2019.

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

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

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

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

Deliberate practice: the way to handle fear.

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

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

Deliberate practice in the performance arena

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

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

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

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

Handling fear in three points

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

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

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

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

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.

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

How self censure can hold you back from greatness

Misdirected effort requires us to stop and think againIn the past couple of articles I’ve discussed how in early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. As I said last time, this is entirely understandable. If a student has come to me, it’s probably because they’re not happy with what they’re doing at the moment, and they want to fix it so the trouble they’re experiencing goes away.

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

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical consequences:

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

First I talked about the logical fallacy behind trying to find a One Right Way to sit. Last time I talked about how we often hold a view of education that holds us back. And in this article I want to talk about the self-criticism implied by the ‘(Bad me)’ part of the thought train. We’ll look at a potential source of habitual self censure, why it holds you back, and what you could do to change it.

Let’s get started.

‘Bad me’ – why does self censure exist?

The important thing to understand about self censure is that it is a learned behaviour – young children just don’t do it. Ken Robinson tells a story about going to see his son’s preschool production of the Nativity, and a wonderful moment that occurred when one of the Three Kings got a little nervous and said his line too soon.

The third boy had to improvise a line he hadn’t learned, or paid much attention to during rehearsal, given that he was only four. The first boy said, “I bring you gold.” The second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.”
The third boy said, “Frank sent this.”[1]

The child could improvise because he hadn’t learned yet to worry about being wrong. Both Robinson and personal finance expert Robert Kiyosaki comment that our fearful attitude towards being wrong is something that we learn from authority figures such as parents, teachers, and education systems.[2] The more conscientious of us then learn to self-censure. We don’t risk anything that isn’t definitely and canonically right, and if we do and don’t have the right answer, we punish ourselves. It’s a trait that is particularly marked among classical music students – if they are told (and I have more than one reliable account of exactly this happening) that the minimum standard for an orchestral musician is to be note-perfect, then they learn to censure and fear mistakes of any kind.

But where does fear of error and self-censure lead?

The consequences of self censure

Early in his first book Man’s Supreme Inheritance FM Alexander quotes a sentence from author Allen Upward:

The man who has so far made up his mind about anything that he can no longer reckon freely with that thing, is mad where that thing is concerned.[3]

Alexander makes the point that what a person thinks has a huge bearing on the way they act and move. If a person learns when she is young that making mistakes is a bad thing and takes that message as a core belief, then her actions will conform to that belief. She may start to avoid situations where she needs to state an opinion or make a judgement, just in case she gets it wrong. She may, in fact, begin to limit her activities, or at least the manner in which she does them, in order to conform to the belief that being wrong is bad. For example, a violinist may begin to play with perfect intonation and complete accuracy to the score, but with no interpretative flair or interest. Worse, the violinist may even begin to create physical behaviours that are the physical equivalent of the mental limitation he has placed upon himself.

The mental attitude can become a physical behaviour.

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 majority of people fall into a mechanical habit of thought quite as easily as they fall into the mechanical habit of body which is the immediate consequence. [4]

Escaping ‘bad me’

From all that we’ve seen so far, I think you’ll agree that it is clearly a good idea to escape the clutches of ‘bad me’ syndrome! Not only will you experience a better quality of life through being calmer and less anxious about making mistakes, you are likely to notice improvements in the freedom and flexibility of your physical movement, too. But how to do it?

Non-AT tools

Well, FM Alexander held a very high opinion of reasoning, and of the “just use and exercise of conscious reason.” [5] He wanted his students – and that means all of us reading and writing this blog – to be able to use their reasoning powers and think their way out of situations. But that can be really hard if you’re suffering with anxiety and worry. There are plenty of non Alexander Technique tools you can use to address these particular issues, from gratitude journals, affirmations and savouring exercises, right through to mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioural therapy. These aren’t AT tools so I won’t discuss them here, but I invite you to research them and find the ones that work most effectively for you.

Alexander Technique to beat ‘bad me’

What I will suggest, however, is that you practise the “just use and exercise of reason” – and this is an Alexander Technique tool. We learn to use our minds more effectively by playing with movement. Other tools will help us directly with the self censure, but indirectly the Alexander Technique helps too. When we focus on one simple movement, we give ourselves permission to play and experiment. This is by definition open-ended and with no right answer. In big ‘important’ activities (like playing music) this might be threatening but for most students it’s okay because it’s just a simple movement, and seems to fall beneath the threshold of anxiety. In effect, we teach ourselves how to be playful again.

Pick an activity and really investigate it. It could be something as simple as picking up the kettle! Really notice what muscles and joints you use when you do the activity. Think about what muscles and joints would most efficiently do the job. See if you can use just these. Evaluate – rejoice in success, and learn from failure. Repeat.

And have fun.

[1] Robinson, K., The Element, London, Penguin, 2009, p.15.
[2] Kiyosaki, R. &Bennett, H.Z, If You Want to be Rich and Happy, Don’t go to School, Fairfield, Aslan, 1993, p.83.
[3] Upward, A. quoted in Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.51.
[4] ibid., p.52.
[5] ibid., p.57.

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

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

It’s not just about the hours

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

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

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

Principles for overnight success: Analysis

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

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

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

Principles for overnight success: Evaluation

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Martin, op.cit.,  p.51.

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

Feeling stuck on a problem? Try making an experiment.

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

The Alexander Technique IS making an experiment

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

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

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

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

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

Making an experiment – FM’s approach

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

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

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

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

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

Making an experiment: the steps

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

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

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

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

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

Mix it up! Why changing your routines makes you better

changing your routines gets you out of grooves

Chiropractors who only work from one side of the bench.

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

Runners who follow the same route every training run.

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

What do these people have in common?

They’ve fallen into a groove.

“The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when set in action, slides along the familiar, well-worn path.” [1]

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

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

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

Nonplussed by the unexpected

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

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

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

Physical and Mental flexibility

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

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

Small amounts of stress are good

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

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

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

Your mind and your body will thank you for it.

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

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

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

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

Why playing challenging material is important

Jennifer Mackerras (teaches Alexander Technique in Bristol) playing recorder

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

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

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

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

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

Playing challenging material helps us gain mastery

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

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

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

Playing challenging material helps us expand our limits

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

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

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

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

Accept the challenge, but accept it wisely

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] ibid., p.171.

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