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 respond to mistakes?

Making mistakes in performance: bad or good?

I read an interesting blog post recently about mistakes by Shane Parrish of Farnam Street. He comments briefly that mistakes are inevitable, but then reminded me of a far more important lesson: the mistake is only as good as our response to it.

Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond. We all get steered off course at some point in our lives. What really counts isn’t that we make a mistakes but the choices that follow those mistakes.[1]

According to Shane Parrish mistakes are potentially useful, depending on the choices we make afterwards. And FM Alexander would agree! So what is a good method for best using our mistakes to move us forward?

Experimentation leads to information

When I work with my students at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama I ask them to keep a reflective journal of their experiences during their time with me. I encourage them to follow the example of FM Alexander: 

I saw that if ordinary speaking did not cause hoarseness while reciting did, there must be something different between what I did in reciting and what I did in ordinary speaking. If this were so, and I could find out what the difference was, it might help me to get rid of the hoarseness, and at least I could do no harm by making an experiment.[2]

Like FM, I ask them to pick particular areas of playing or studying that they want to improve, and then to construct experiments that will help them work on these areas.

I then have the privilege of reading and marking the reflective journals at the end of the unit. There’s always a massive amount of good in the journals, but also one consistent mistake: the failure to reflect upon their errors and include that learning as part of the design of their next Alexander Technique experiment. And this is what Alexander himself did so well: when, for example, he discovered the three harmful tendencies he exhibited when speaking and reciting, he wanted to know which tendency caused the other two. He examined the feedback from one experiment, compared it to his hypotheses, and then constructed a new experiment based upon it.

As I was unable to answer these questions, all I could do was to go on patiently experimenting before the mirror.[3]

Mistakes lead to re-examination

But what if you make a mistake? And what if it’s a really bad one – a howler? What do you do then?

FM Alexander had those too. At one particular point during his efforts to solve his vocal problems, he even remarks, 

all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.[4]

And that sounds like a fairly big error! And what Alexander did is impressive: he went back to pretty much the beginning of his investigations, and re-examined everything. He conducted “a long consideration of the whole question of the direction of the use of myself.” In doing this he discovered that he’d based all his work on a fairly major assumption which, through his practical experience, he had experimentally proved to be untrue.

The finer points of what Alexander assumed aren’t really important today. What really does matter, though, is that he took the time to learn from his mistakes. And from the way he went about things, we can construct a basic process to follow for our own experiments.

Learning from mistakes: the process

At some point we’ve all learned or used a form of basic scientific method like the one I’ve listed here:

  • Observe stuff
  • Create a hypothesis about why the observed things are happening, or how to stop them happening
  • Create an experiment to test the hypothesis.
  • Gain results

For most of us, though, we tend to stop there. What Alexander would probably rather we did is this:

flowchart of how to analyse mistakes and feedback

I’m hoping the flowchart makes it a relatively simple process – because it is! But many people are like my College students and don’t bother with it. Why?

I suspect it’s partly that most of us learn from a young age to fear mistakes and desire to bury them. More than that, though, it takes a degree of humility and discipline to follow through and really examine our mistakes. But FM Alexander is a prime example of the kind of success that can be achieved if we just do the work.

So will you?

[1] Parrish, S., ‘Your Response to Mistakes Defines You’, https://fs.blog/2014/09/mistakes/ , accessed 10 June 2019.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance London, Orion, 1985, p.26.

[3] ibid., p.27.

[4] ibid., p.34.

Image by Stuart Miles, freedigitalphotos.net

Flowchart made by Jennifer.

Pick one thing: the causal factor that changes everything

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

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

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

The causal factor in the wild

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

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

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

So what’s going on? Why does it work?

Why the causal factor exists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Image courtesy of posterize at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Process oriented practice or product oriented practice?

Process oriented practice utilises the spaces between the notesWhat does music consist of – just the notes, or the spaces between them, too?

This may seem like an odd question, and you may think the answer is obvious: the spaces between the notes are part of the music too. But how often do we think about these spaces when we practise? And how often do we view them as an area of action, rather than as a break in activity?

Following the process: drawing what you see.

When I was younger, I attempted to improve my visual art skills. I remember looking at the African violet on the table in front of me, and trying to draw the flower. It was far harder than I thought. I thought I knew what the flower looked like. But when I really looked at the violet in front of me, the shapes didn’t conform to my mental image of what the flower ‘should’ look like. A combination of perspective and the background/environment around the flower changed the shapes. It left me with a dilemma: do I draw what I think is right, or draw what I actually see in front of me?

Betty Edwards in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain speaks about this phenomenon. We struggle to draw what is in front of us, because we think we know what the object we are drawing ‘should’ look like. William Westney in his book The Perfect Wrong Note applies the same principle to music:

“musical notes are objects, and we know too much about them too – exactly where they should be and how they’re supposed to sound, for instance. Adopting the method Edwards suggests, an enlightened practicer would take a more open, inclusive view, and would  set out to learn the specific physicality of the notes and the spaces between them. To put it another way, what we learn in the practice room should be 50 per cent notes and 50 per cent negative space.” [1]

Westney’s point is that the rests, pauses and the space between notes give shape not just to the notes, but to the way we approach them. Sometimes they are the place where we need to consider how we are going to play the next phrase; sometimes they are part of the phrase musically, but technically are full of incident and adjustment. In these cases just thinking of the notes – the product – is not going to be helpful at all. We need to think of all elements of playing as a whole, not just the end product.

Product-oriented practice

So often we organise our practice sessions with the end product in mind. We have an idea of how we want the music to sound, and we concentrate upon that as we work on the piece. In this mode of practice, any thought that we give to mechanics or technique is secondary to the sound we want to create. It may even not be reasoned out with awareness and deliberation. 

FM Alexander would call this ‘end-gaining’. He gives a fantastic definition of end-gaining in his chapter about a golfer who can’t keep his eye on the ball.

His habit is to work directly for his ends on the “trial and error” plan without giving due consideration to the means whereby those ends should be gained. In the present instance there can be no doubt that the particular end he has in view is to make a good stroke … the moment he begins to play he starts to work for that end directly, without considering what manner of use of his mechanisms generally would be the best for the making of a good stroke. The result is that he makes the stroke according to his habitual use… takes his eyes off the ball and makes a bad stroke. [2]

End-gaining is Alexander’s way of describing what we do when we concentrate on product instead of the process that will actually help us achieve it. This is what we do when we focus on the notes/melody/music instead of the combination of all the elements that create the product that we call ‘music’.

Process oriented practice

The kind of practice advocated by Westney  – what I am terming ‘process oriented practice’ – is much closer to what Alexander would call ‘giving due consideration to the means’ that will enable the desired end to be gained. We need to look not just at the notes, but at space between them. This is the ‘negative space’ where we must complete whatever is necessary physically to get us from one note to the next. In process oriented practice we learn to look at the negative space – the hidden world where we explore fingerings, joint angulations, efficiency of movement. We need to learn to look at the notes as the outcome of the process that occurs in the negative space, because if we successfully complete the mental and physical activities needed in the negative space, the notes will take care of themselves.

Ultimately, we need to learn how to allow ourselves, particularly in the early stages of the rehearsal process, the delicious luxury of exploring HOW we are going to navigate our way between the notes on the page. We need to learn to enjoy the pleasure of exploring the universe of negative space in which the printed notes appear like jewels. If we pay attention to the means, the product will take care of itself.

[1] Westney, W., The Perfect Wrong Note, Plumpton Plains, Amadeus Music, 2003, p.109. A big thanks to @strawbini of Twitter for introducing me to this book.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT ed., p.436.

Image from pixabay.com

Why a pre-performance performance is a great idea

A pre-performance performance can stop little things getting in your wayEarlier this year my son played in the classical guitar classes at our local Festival. (By the way, entering Festivals is a great idea for learners, no matter what level you’ve reached – you get performance practice, you can trial new pieces, and you even get feedback from a professional. Bonus!) He was fine walking out to the stage area and setting up his music, footstool and guitar. He played beautifully. But then…

It took him ages to get offstage again. He had an expensive guitar, a footstool (awkward to hold), and a music book. Three things, but only two hands. It took him a while to work out how to hold them all in order to walk off!

It reminded me once again of the importance of doing run-throughs in performance conditions: you learn what little things you haven’t accounted for. A few years ago, I learned the hard way that one needs to practice drinking water from a bottle while running, if one is to avoid drenching oneself during the race! My son now understands the importance of doing a pre-performance performance, so that he can rehearse those little things like picking up a footstool.

Why a pre-performance performance is good

There are huge benefits to organising for yourself a pre-performance performance. You can:

  • pick up the little things that might trip you up (like a footstool)
  • test out playing under performance conditions. Having an audience, however small, forces you to play through any mistakes you make.
  • help yourself smooth over nerves for the actual day. You’ll prove to yourself that you can do the task of performing, and as FM knew, success builds confidence.
  • learn where you need to do more work. You’ll find the places where you need to think again, both musically and logistically.

Organising a pre-performance performance gives you a chance to use one of the key tools FM Alexander used to solve his vocal problems: you have the chance to analyse the conditions present. This was the first step in FM’s short protocol for working out how to best organise himself in any given activity. He would analyse the conditions present, then use that information to reason out the best means to achieve his goal, and then work on doing just those things.[1]

Giving a pre-performance performance helps you to analyse the specific set of conditions present in the actual performance, so that you have a better idea of how to approach it. You’ll be able to reason out a plan so as to give yourself the best chance of success. And that can only be good.

FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion Books, p.39.

Learning to follow through: why we bail out on our plans

Musical phrases require us to follow through to the endDo you follow through? Do you push through to the end of things?

My son is currently learning Solveig’s Song by Grieg for his grade 4 trumpet exam. One of the things that he is finding tricky at the moment is playing right through to the end of the phrases. Each phrase is quite long and requires good breath control, and it is so very tempting to cut the long note at the end of the phrase short and have a break!

I have experienced something similar with one of my recorder pieces. I found myself cutting a phrase short, and realised I was doing it because I was already thinking about the tricky phrase coming up!

It doesn’t just happen in music. I once taught a group of actors who were using a chaise longue in a scene. They were all experiencing achiness in the low back. When I watched them, I realised that they all effectively ‘stopped sitting’ a few inches above the seat of the chaise – at the same height as all the other chairs in the rehearsal room! Plonking down those final few inches when they’d already ‘sat’ was causing the low back discomfort.

FM Alexander didn’t follow through, either

FM Alexander found that even after he’d discovered the physical acts that were causing his vocal trouble and had created a plan (and whole new set of mental disciplines) in order to use his voice more effectively, that actually using his plan was a whole other challenge. He reverted to his ‘instinctive use’  – his previous way of using his voice – more often that not. FM realised that he was trying to use a new protocol that he had carefully reasoned out, but was trying to judge how well he was doing by whether he was feeling right.[1] This is a bit like deciding to follow a healthy eating plan but finishing every meal with a big slice of chocolate cake: self-defeating!

Deciding not to follow through = ‘feeling right’

The thing is, when we see the phrase ‘feeling right’ we can be misled into thinking it’s referring purely to physical sensation.  But it can refer to the more subtle pay-off of not having to examine one’s thinking, too. Even as we decide to follow a particular plan in order to take us towards the goal we desire, we can still fool ourselves into thinking we are changing and improving. We can believe we are following our plan, while not actually following through on everything that we need to do in order to change and improve.

If I am shortchanging one phrase to think about the next, I am choosing to feel right (worrying about the next phrase is more important than finishing this one).

When my son stops the final note in the first phrase of Solveig’s Song early, he is choosing to feel right (I would rather stop playing than have to rethink the length of the phrase so I can breathe in further).

If my students stop using their hip joints before they reach the chaise, they are choosing to feel right (I would rather not have to think about the chair height, but just sit the way I always do).

But if we genuinely want to improve, then we really do need to examine our thinking. We need to honour the process that we’re following, and choose to not just follow that process, but also accept all the implications of that process. And sometimes that will involve having to change the way we think. So I’ll need to stop worrying about the next phrase, and just keep playing the one I’m in the middle of. My son will need to rethink his phrasing and breathing so that he can play his piece the way he wants.

What about you? What implications do you need to accept and incorporate, so that you can follow your process all the way through to its conclusion?

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion Books, 1985, pp.44-45.

Do you view performance as process, or as an end?

Pink Noise in performanceWhen preparing to perform, do you view the performance as process, or as an end to be gained?

Over the last few months, I’ve had a number of students (acting and music) articulate their ideas about an upcoming performance in the following way:

  • The performance is on x date
  • I shall work on the process of learning the music/lines, experimenting with interpretation, and exploring the music… until the date of x.
  • On x date, I will perform the piece.

In other words, I think it’s very easy for actors and musicians to go very happily through the process of rehearsing, learning, experimenting and exploring – until the performance. Then it can be every so tempting to believe that the process that led you to that point is over, and that your job is to deliver a finished product.

Speaking for myself, I know that I have often fallen into the trap of thinking of the actual performance as an end point. I have been very happy to go through a process involving thinking and learning about the music/script during rehearsals, but with the view that I am doing so in order to have a completed product to put in front of the audience at opening night. But what if the performance isn’t an end point or anything to be gained/achieved?

What if it is just another part of the process? In fact, what if the performance is the same process?

Performance as process

When I teach actors or singers, they often ask me to help out with improving a monologue or a solo; often the performer says they are having trouble with nerves or concentration. For example, if I am helping a young actor, I will watch them perform a scene, and often  proceed as part of my lesson design to ask them some basic questions: Who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Where are you going? Who are you talking to? After answering these questions, frequently the scene improves greatly without the need for any Alexander Technique hands-on work. But why?

Simple. By asking the questions, I remind the actor that performance is process. I have reminded them of the work that they did in rehearsal. To answer my questions, the actor has to recall both the content and the quality of thought and concentration that they used when they first created their interpretation. The answers are, in effect, recreated. And so when the actor performs the scene, they place themselves in the creative process that enables them to work moment by moment, line by line.

This was exactly the problem that FM Alexander discovered when he was trying to find a solution to his vocal problems. He had formulated a new plan for how to use his mechanisms (his body!) in speaking, and had practiced and practiced. But he realised that, at the critical moment of going to speak, he threw it away and reverted to his older manner of use. It was only when FM found a way of continuing to think about the process he had designed up to and through the critical moment of beginning to speak, that he began to experience sustained improvement.[1]

So how do we as performers achieve similar sustained improvement?

Ideas to promote performance as process

  1. Remember that the performance isn’t the end point. It’s just another stage along a journey. If you’re an actor, the likelihood is that you’ll be performing the same words again the following night. If you’re a musician, you’ll have that piece of music in your repertoire for a long time. Play the long game.
  2. To play the long game, set goals for yourself that aren’t related to that particular performance. For example, for my next performance with my group Pink Noise, because we are playing a piece we know fairly well, my goal is to listen more to my colleagues and match intonations more closely.
  3. If you’re an actor, keep working on those basic questions: who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Keep looking at the script. Sometimes it will surprise you, and you’ll find something that you’ve never noticed before!

Most importantly, keep remembering that the performance is no end point. When we view performance as process, we stay in tune with our words and music, we stay in the present moment, and we will be so busy that we’ll have no time for nerves! Try it, and let me know how it turns out.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.428.

There is no magic bullet: true grit as the key to achieving your goals

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So often, if we’re really honest, we would love to be given the magic bullet that will fix our problems quickly.

The secret to playing that semiquaver passage.

The key to losing those last few pounds(kilos for me – I’m a metric girl).

The one thing that will make that bit of writing better.

Because if we were given that magic bullet, we wouldn’t have to go through the stress, struggle and frustration of not being sufficiently good enough. We’d be able to skip that nasty bit, and go straight on to the ‘doing it easily with no effort at all’ stage, quickly and easily. And there’d be no problems ever again…

Reality check 1: there is no magic bullet

There just isn’t. We know this. Dreaming about it is fun for a while, but ultimately doesn’t help us progress in our endeavours.

Reality check 2: even if there was a magic bullet, it wouldn’t mean the end of struggle

The simple fact of the matter is that, if we are progressing, we will always be running up against things we can’t do yet. This means that we will always experience some level of frustration.

I think the notion of the ‘struggle-free zone’ is a false belief based on the idea that there is some kind of condition of ‘perfect’ where, once our problems are sorted, everything will be easy. But a lot of problems just aren’t like that. There are a lot of activities and problems in the world that have no end point. For example, in his book The Myth of the Garage, Chip Heath relates the story of the program manager for the anti-smoking initiative in North Carolina, and how she approached the goal of reducing smoking across the state.* Even with the best will in the world, the chances of 100% success in stopping smoking across an entire state seems highly unlikely! To use a very different example, most actors will tell you that you never really finish working on a character – there is no point where you know everything that there is to know about Hamlet.

And on one level, we know this to be true. We know that, to quote FM Alexander, “if a person is to make [a] change successfully, it must be by a gradual process of change from day to day”**

The difficulty is that we don’t get much in the way of feedback when we’re in the midst of this gradual process. Students often report having the experience of feeling as though they aren’t making sufficient change when they’re working by themselves, or that they aren’t ‘doing it right’ because things aren’t changing as fast as they hoped.

And this is where grit comes in. Chip Heath describes grit as “endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity.” What I like about this definition is that it has no reference to results, only to pursuit of goals. The reality of the creative life (actually, not just the creative life) is that most things aren’t easy, and very few of them have definite end points. We are making improvements one step at a time, one decision at a time. We don’t get (to borrow Heath’s words) the obvious “psychic payoff” of a categorical success; just the knowledge of another step taken.

How do we avoid the mystique of the magic bullet?

By making sure we keep our heads straight, and asking ourselves some simple questions.

  • Is it a problem with a definite end point? (Baking a cake? Yes! Learning and performing a piece of music? Probably no)
  • Am I prepared to look for, accept, and celebrate even small changes that move towards my goal?
  • Can I find a way of helping me measure small improvement? (Recording my practice sessions, finding a friend to listen to me every couple of weeks, etc)
  • Can I programme a periodic review, so that I can look back and assess how things are going over a longer time period?

Try these ideas out, and see if they help you deal with the frustration of the daily battle for improvement. Value grit, and eschew the magic bullet. And be sure to let me know how it turns out.

* Heath, C., The Myth of the Garage, Kindle ed., loc.747.
** FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT ed., p.585.
Image by papaija2008 from freedigitalphotos.net

The talent myth – why we really can have a go at anything we choose

musician2

Have you ever been faced with a complicated bit of arithmetic and thought ‘I’m just not good at maths’? Or struggled to run to catch the bus, wheezing and thinking ‘I was never sporty’? If so, then you may need to think again. The talent myth has you in thrall.

The talent myth – or the recognition that people having an ‘inbuilt’ natural ability is just a false belief – has become a bit of a commonplace in the past few years. Readers of Matthew Syed or Malcolm Gladwell are familiar with the concept of the 10 000 hours rule, and the concept of ‘putting in the hours’ to achieve mastery is well on the way to becoming a cliche in self-development blogs.

But the idea that talent is not a fait accompli delivered by genetics, but rather a quantity that can be developed and trained in anyone, is not a new one. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the Suzuki Method, firmly believed that there is no such thing as natural ability – that any child could exhibit remarkable abilities if they received a careful and nurturing environment in which to grow and mature.*  Notably, though his Method is now almost synonymous with musical training, he himself described his system as Talent Education.

Reading this, I was inspired to read again FM Alexander’s beliefs about children and education. Alexander is more careful about allowing there to be limits to a child’s potential within its genetic make-up. However, both men, when faced with the question of whether genetics or environment is the more important factor influencing a child’s future success, come down firmly on the side of environment.

And environment, dear readers, means us – parents, educators, friends, and general public. If Suzuki and Alexander are right, we create the conditions in which children develop their gifts – and their deficits – and then laud the gifts by labelling them ‘talent’. That’s the talent myth.

So how does the environment in which a child grows up create such a major impact on success? This is FM’s view:
The child of the present day … is the most plastic and adaptable of living things. At this stage the complete potentiality of conscious control is present… Unfortunately, the usual procedure is to thrust certain habits upon it without the least consideration of cause and effect, and to insist upon these habits until they have become subconscious and have passed from the region of intellectual guidance.**
In other words, children either choose or are forced to take on board ideas about what is right and normal, whether or not there is any logical reasoning behind them, and with no regard to whether the ideas will cause harm in the long run. And then they accept the ideas as normal, and choose how to act based upon them.
And this can generate odd effects. Things that we came to accept as true about ourselves when younger become unquestioned ‘facts’ as we grow up.
Suzuki tells the story of a young violinist who had come to believe that she had clumsy hands because she couldn’t play a passage as fast as she wanted. By an artful process of questioning and demonstration, Suzuki showed the girl that there wasn’t anything wrong with her fingers, merely about her idea of what her fingers could achieve.  When Suzuki gave her a different practice process to follow, she played the passage easily and without complaint.***
FM Alexander summed it up very simply in his second book:
I have no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.****
If we are to take Suzuki and Alexander at their word, we need to at least entertain the idea that our ideas about what we can do and what we can’t are just that – ideas. They are a product of our childhoods, of our schooling, of our friendships, and of our experiences. But there is nothing to say that our ideas are right, or accurate, or based on any firm foundation.
What if ‘tone deaf’ is just an idea?
What if ‘not sporty’ is just a label?
What if ‘not sciencey’ is just a decision we’ve made?
If this is true, then we’d be free to change our minds, and make a decision to create an entirely new version of ourselves.
And wouldn’t that be fun?

 

* Suzuki, S., Nurtured by Love, Exposition Press 1969, pp.46-7.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.73.
*** Suzuki, op.cit., p.48.
**** Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.294.

Unbridled enthusiasm – tips for a great New Year from Alexander and Caesari

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Are you filled with enthusiasm for the coming year?

How are you going with your New Year’s Resolutions?

Or have you worked out your goals for 2014? Are you sticking to your plans so far?

If you’re anything like me, you experience a heady mix of emotions at the beginning of the year as you make plans for how you want to best use your time and energies. And it can be tricky navigating a path through the mix of excitement, puzzlement, enthusiasm, fear and confusion.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, as I started one of my holiday reading books, to come across a reminder of some of the most important lessons that FM Alexander teaches us about navigating the process of change and development.

My holiday reading was called The Alchemy of Voice, written by singing teacher E. Herbert-Caesari. In the opening chapter, the author exhorts singing students to strive, experiment and practise daily – all good things, I’m sure you’ll agree! But then he issues this warning:

 

Let the student beware, however, of three prominent evils:

  • Unbridled enthusiasm which leads to precipitancy and excesses;
  • Impatient expectation of rapid measurable results;
  • Discouragement in face of temporary or occasional failure.*

What a list! It’s such a powerful selection of principles that I’m going to spend this blog post just talking about the first of Caesari’s three points: the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm.

 

Unbridled enthusiasm – too much of a good thing.

When my son made chapattis recently, he decided not to follow the written recipe instructions. Measuring ingredients seemed slow and tedious. Instead, he decided to put two large double handfuls of flour in his bowl, sprinkle in a bit of salt, and then slosh in some water.

The mix was a little dry, so he added more water.

The mix was still too dry, so he added a little more water.

The mix was STILL too dry, so he added… a lot more water. A whole lot. His chapatti mix looked a little like soup. It needed a lot more flour, and some adult help, to bring it back to being the right consistency.

Caesari’s point at the beginning of his book is that singers are a little like my son. He decided that he knew what chapatti dough looked like, so he didn’t need to measure ingredients. He knew what he was doing. Similarly, Caesari suggests that singers very often think they know what sort of sound they want to achieve, and don’t necessarily follow a reasoned process to get there.

But it isn’t just singers who are like that, and it isn’t just my son. I suspect everyone has this experience. We are convinced we know what our end product should be, so in our enthusiasm to get to the end, we skip some of the slow, boring, tedious, necessary steps that will get us there.

FM Alexander certainly had this experience. In 1910 he wrote:

One day I hope to write an account of how I arrived at the practical elucidation of my principles of conscious control, and when I do, I shall show very plainly how one of the greatest, if not the greatest danger against which I had to fight was my own enthusiasm. It is as vivid and keen today as it was over twenty years ago, but I should never have worked out my principles, if I had allowed it to dominate my reason.**

Enthusiasm and reason

Notice that Alexander doesn’t say that enthusiasm is bad. Neither does Caesari. They both say that unbridled enthusiasm is bad. Unbridled enthusiasm blinds us; it stops us from assuming that we know everything, and causes us to miss out vital steps. It stops us from using our heads.

So this is what we must do:

  • Be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is good. It keeps us going through the inevitable failures and disappointments along the path to our goals;
  • Remember that we don’t know it all! Humility will keep us remembering that we need to watch out for our hidden assumptions and blind spots;
  • Keep using our heads and following all the steps. It’s hard to be a good musician if you don’t practise. It’s hard to keep fit if you don’t exercise. It’s hard to be a writer if you don’t write! Keep showing up, and keep doing the steps.

If we follow these pointers, then together we can all make a true difference to ourselves, to our families, and to our communities this year. Wouldn’t that be a great thing?

 

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.90. And he did write that account of how he arrived at his principles of conscious control – it’s the first chapter of his book The Use of the Self.
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