Big questions: Will I ever be able to do Alexander Technique without a teacher?

when will I be able to do Alexander Technique can feel like 'how long is a piece of string' - but the variables are more defined! Picture of string.

There are certain questions I get asked a lot as an Alexander Technique teacher. This one is a variation on the ‘how long does it take to learn Alexander Technique’ question, or the ‘when will I get better’ question. But it has a slightly different flavour, because the others seem to assume that there’s an end point – a point at which the skill has been totally learned and the problem that caused the student to come to lessons is completely better.

I could write a whole article on the logical fallacy behind that particular notion (and probably will), but today I want to focus on the follow-on question: when will I be able to do Alexander Technique without a teacher?

It’s a follow-on question because it has an extra degree of sophistication to it – it puts Alexander Technique into the same bracket as music or singing lessons. We are mostly quite comfortable with the idea that a musical instrument is a skill that is likely to benefit from professional input regularly for quite a while, and that even people who are very skilled still consider lessons important to their development.  Being skilled at something doesn’t mean that you might not benefit from some guidance, at least occasionally!

But what does a student mean when they ask how long it will take to do Alexander Technique without a teacher? If we take the Alexander Technique as a toolkit of principles and strategies for changing the way you move and think, then doing it yourself would involve being able to access the toolkit and pick the right tool for each circumstance or activity.

Can a student learn to do this? Absolutely, yes.

Doing it for yourself

Being able to ‘do Alexander Technique’ for yourself without the aid of a teacher was in fact Alexander’s greatest goal:

“I wish to do away with such teachers as I am myself. My place in the present economy is due to a misunderstanding of the causes of our present physical disability, and when this disability is finally eliminated the specialized practitioner will have no place, no uses.” [1]

Alexander wanted us to be able to use our reasoning intelligence for our own benefit. He wanted us to be able to reason our way through any situation or activity we might find ourselves in, so that we can acquit ourselves with efficiency and grace.

Doing it for yourself – in action!

And this is completely possible. The other day I went out for a run with my teenage son. Midway through the run he commented that he’d realised that he lifts his shoulders up to his ears when he runs, and that he was thinking about letting them hang. I didn’t even get the chance to ask how that was working; he carried on to say that it felt really weird and he wanted to lift them back up again, but that running was suddenly a lot easier. He then cheekily commented that he doesn’t need an Alexander teacher, and sprinted off!

Of course, my son has spent all of his life living around Alexander Technique ideas, so it is hardly surprising that he would need very few formal lessons, but equally, he has clearly reached a stage where is is quite capable of ‘doing the Alexander Technique’ for himself! But what does it take, if you’re not living 24/7 with me?

  • Preparedness to work. You need to be ready to do a bit of thinking.
  • Willingness to fail. Not every bit of reasoning you do is going to be perfect first time around! The essence of creativity is getting stuff wrong and learning from it.
  • Practice. You’ll need to do some.
  • Learning the tools. This is the key bit. You can do this by reading Alexander’s books, or books by others, or by watching stuff on YouTube. You could download my audio series that talks you through some of the basic ideas; you could have lessons. You could do a mixture of all of these.

And the final thing? 

Time. Take time over it. Just as my son didn’t learn to play complex Tarrega pieces on his guitar in a day or a month, so too learning the complexities behind the principles of the Alexander Technique might take a little time. You’ll have enough in a very short while to get you started; everything else is refining your skills. And that’s where the fun starts.

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat 1997, p. 5

Photo by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Get analysing: Why positive thinking isn’t going to help you improve, and the surprising thing that actually will

This brain has ditched positive thinking for reasoning and mental practice

It being the end of January as I write this, you’ve probably already had your fill of ‘New Year, New You’ style posts and articles extolling the virtues of total life changes and positive thinking. So I’m not going to write one – you’d only be bored! Instead, I’m going to do the opposite, and tell you to ditch the positive thinking for something far more effective.

Event-simulation vs positive thinking

It turns out that just trying to be positive and visualise nice and happy outcomes doesn’t actually have very much impact upon a person’s ability or motivation to solve the problems that they’re facing. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath recount an experiment that was done with a group of UCLA students. The students were divided into three groups. All groups were asked to think about a problem that was causing them stress, and all were given some basic instruction on problem solving.

The control group was sent home at this point. The second group, the ‘event-simulation’ group, were asked to visualise how the problem had unfolded. They had to simulate in their mind each step that led to the problem that they were now facing, remembering as far as possible what they had said and done. The third group, the ‘outcome-simulation’ group, were told to visualise how they would feel when the problem was solved. Groups 2 and 3 were then sent home with instructions to repeat the simulation for 5 minutes each day.

After a week, the groups were invited back to the lab in order to see which students had fared best in coping with their problems. The event simulation group members felt more positive about their problems; they had taken more specific actions to solve their problems; they had sought more outside help; they reported feeling like they had learned from the experience.[1]

FM Alexander – positive action, not positive thinking

What fascinated me when I read about this experiment was how much it reminded me of the process that FM Alexander engaged in when he began investigating the causes of the vocal problems that threatened his career. He didn’t just blindly trust the doctor, and he didn’t try to ‘feel more positive’ about getting better. Rather, he asked a fundamental question –

“is it not fair … to conclude that it was something I was doing that evening in using my voice that was the cause of the trouble?”[2]

– went back to his study and thought really hard about exactly when he experienced the vocal difficulties. He made observations, made a hypothesis, and tested it. He didn’t sit around – he thought and then he acted.

We can all do this. We can be like the UCLA students and think back to when the problem we’re experiencing first appeared. We can trace our way through the different actions that affected it. And if we do this, we’ve got solid evidence on which to base our hypotheses and go about finding solutions.

Opening questions we can ask ourselves:

  • Is it something that I’m doing in the way I’m going about things that causes the problem?
  • When did it first appear?
  • Does it get worse at specific times?
  • Does it get better at specific times?
  • Do I do a little bit of it all the time, or is it something that is completely specific to one activity or context?

I’m sure you can think of other questions that might be useful!

So, at the risk of sounding like a grump, try ditching positive thinking and replace it with ‘event-simulation’ thinking instead. And let me know what you discover.

[1], Heath, C. & Heath, D., Made to Stick, London, Random House, 2007, pp.210-211.

[2] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 2001, p.25. Author’s italics.

Image courtesy of MR LIGHTMAN at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

All about direction: what do Google Maps and Alexander Technique have in common?

When I was teaching the first year Music students at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama last week and asked them what they already knew about Alexander Technique, one of them said ‘direction’. Now, ‘direction’ is a technical term in Alexander Technique, but it turned out my student wasn’t talking about the technical meaning; she meant quite literally that Alexander Technique gives a person a direction of travel. We discussed this in class, and started comparing the Alexander Technique to Google Maps.

Alexander Technique and direction of travel

So is Google Maps a useful analogy? Is the Alexander Technique a kind of psycho-physical equivalent of mapping software? Let’s investigate.

Google Maps and the direction of travel

In order to think about this properly, we need to think in practical terms about how Google Maps works. To take a simple example, if I’m at College and I want to find my way back to Cardiff Central railway station, I would type it into the search bar: it is my destination of choice. Google Maps then takes the information of where I am and where I want to go, combines it with more information about how I’m travelling, the traffic conditions and road closures, and then gives me typically three different routes to choose from. One of these routes will be direct, and at least one will be longer but more scenic. I get to choose my route according to the quality of the route I want to take – fast, or scenic. Once I’ve chosen my preferred route, all I have to do is to follow the indicated path, and I know that I’ll successfully find the station in time to catch my train home.

Alexander Technique and direction of travel

So how does Alexander Technique match up against this? The section of FM Alexander’s books that most neatly speaks to this idea of finding a direction or route is this piece from his chapter Evolution of a Technique:

In the work that followed I came to see that to get a direction of my use which would ensure this satisfactory reaction, I must cease to rely upon the feeling associated with my instinctive direction, and in its place employ my reasoning processes, in order

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

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

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

Well, in order to, for example, raise my recorder to my lips, I need to have a destination in mind; for today, let’s say my destination is raising the instrument as efficiently as I can. Having chosen my destination, I then need to be my own route creator, instead of relying on Google’s algorithms! But I’ll be doing something similar: taking my starting place and my destination into consideration, along with other relevant information like joints, muscles, size of recorder, and so on. I can then construct a route or three that will get me and my recorder to where I want them to be.

Now, I can think of at least three ways I could get my recorder to my mouth. But part of my goal wasn’t just locational, but qualitative; I wanted to get it to my mouth efficiently. So I can now choose the route (process) that best fulfils that qualitative criterion.

And having chosen my route, all I need to do is to follow it as accurately as I can.

As a starting place for understanding how the Alexander Technique works, it’s not a bad analogy! So where do you want to go today, and what routes will you choose from to get there?

[1] Alexander, F.M., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 2001, p.39.

(And yes, I did mention Google Maps in a recent post – this one – but for a very different reason)

Image courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Change and Alexander Technique: confronting self perception

People come to Alexander Technique because they aren’t happy with the way they are currently using their minds and bodies, and they want to change. But the change they are asking for tends to be a very particular and specialised kind of change: they want to be better, and yet FEEL exactly the same! In other words, they want the improvements without any change in their self perception.

Happy by Derren Brown includes a great section on self perception

I was reminded of this during the week while reading Happy by Derren Brown. Brown recounts how his physical trainer suggested that he work on changing his stance while walking so that he didn’t round his shoulders forward. Brown noticed that when he walked in the way his trainer suggested he felt a sense of authority and connection to others that he hadn’t previously experienced.[1]

Changes feel different.

Brown’s experience chimes neatly with FM Alexander’s concept of psycho-physical unity. Because we are an interconnected mind-body organism, we shouldn’t really be surprised that making a change in the way we stand or walk is going to make a change in the way others perceive us, and in the way we perceive ourselves. Amy Cuddy’s work on power poses highlights a similar fact: if we change one part of our psycho-physical organism, we should expect those changes to create a cascade effect throughout the rest of the organism.

But we so often don’t expect this. We think that we can make a specific change (like walking without hunching our shoulders) and it not affect anything else. This is very human, but it’s still a logical fallacy. And so often the change that is most noticeable is one of self-perception; we feel different. As Brown says in Happy,

Perhaps between a preference for not drawing attention to myself in public and the physical placement of my hunched shoulders, I had come to feel rather invisible on the street. The sudden shift in my mood engendered by this point of correction was startling to me, and a little unsettling, as I felt far more conspicuous. [2]

Feeling right as a means of guidance

When trying to remedy his own vocal problems, Alexander realised that feelings (including self-perception) were very significant in his difficulties.

I had to admit that I had never thought out how I difrected the use of myself, but that I used myself habitually in the way that felt natural to me. In other words, I like everyone else depended upon ‘feeling’ for the direction of my use.[3]

This becomes very important indeed, though, when one tries to make a change to one’s manner of use. For as Alexander came to realise through his own experiences, the way we use ourselves habitually, no matter how inefficient or downright painful, feels right. We feel like ourselves. So when we start to make changes, there is a strong likelihood that we will cause a cascade effect that causes us to feel different. As as Derren Brown experienced, that change in the way we feel ourselves to be in the world can be unsettling.

At this point every student of the Alexander Technique has a choice. Will they stick with the new way of doing things and make an effort to deal with the change in self perception, or will they go back to feeling ‘normal’?

Derren Brown chose to return to his slouch. FM Alexander decided to ride his way through the sense of feeling wrong. Which will you choose today?

[1] Brown, D., Happy, London, Corgi, 2017, p.297.

[2] ibid.

[3] Alexander, FM., The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.35.

How powerful is a decision?

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

An example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph of Pink Noise Recorder Quartet members by Matthew Mackerras.

Separating injury from compensatory movements

injuries can cause compensatory movementsHave you ever injured yourself, then found yourself moving other parts of you in odd ways so as to compensate for the injured part? Perhaps you found yourself tensing muscles around the injury in order to prevent movements that cause pain? It’s a very human response, but sometimes compensatory movements cause more problems than they prevent. This is a post about how I know this to be true. It also contains a tip or two for how to deal with the problem.

Compensatory movements: autobiography

Last week I injured a muscle in my right shoulder. For a number of days the injury was so bad that I could barely move my head. I even took anti-inflammatories – it’s rare for me to resort to painkillers, but on this occasion it was necessary. And a week later, it still isn’t better.

When I met up with a colleague earlier this week, she did some hands-on Alexander Technique work with me, and found that I’d been tightening pretty much every muscle in my shoulder girdle on both sides in order to try and deal with the pain. With her help, I started to loosen off some of the tension.

The pain got worse in the injured area. Then everything felt markedly better.

Compensatory movements are different to the injury

Why did my symptoms improve, even though Alexander Technique does not (and cannot) deal directly with injuries?

It’s important to remember that there is a difference between an injury and our reaction to it. I think we’ve all had the experience of hurting ourselves – perhaps spraining an ankle – and then moving differently in order to avoid putting pressure on the injured area and causing ourselves pain (and possibly further injury). We indulge in compensatory movements, usually to avoid further hurt and upset.

Unfortunately, our compensatory movements aren’t always rational or reasonable. Worse than that, they aren’t reasoned, and fall into the category of what FM Alexander would call ‘specific treatment’ which doesn’t take into account the general working of a person’s whole body:

It is in the nature of unity that any change in a part means a change in the whole, and the parts of the human organism are knit so closely into a unity that any attempt to make a fundamental change in the working of a part is bound to alter the use and adjustment of the whole … any attempt to eradicate a defect otherwise than by changing and improving this faulty concerted use is bound to throw out the balance somewhere else. [1]

The injury makes one set of adjustments to the working of the whole body. If we then generate compensatory movements and throw those into the mix, we can have no idea of what effect all of these will have on the condition of our general use of ourselves.

As I said, compensatory movements are likely to be rational or reasoned, they are almost certainly specific ‘fixes’, and sometimes they can cause us more discomfort than the original injury! I think every Alexander Technique teacher could tell stories of students who had created elaborate movement strategies that ultimately were detrimental to the student’s wellbeing, even though the student had created them from the best of intentions.

So what do we do to avoid making ourselves feel worse?

Top tips

  1. Let yourself be injured. Don’t try to ‘muscle through’ activities.
  2. Think about range of motion and alternative movements. You will be tempted to throw lots of muscular tension at your problem to prevent movement of the injured part and avoid pain. Better to know what ranges of motion you can use safely, and find alternative ways of doing things. For me, this has meant getting much better at using my left arm!
  3. Make an effort to think about your head-body relationship. If Alexander is right and our general condition of use is fundamental to our wellbeing, then spending time thinking about this relationship will help to ease any tension we may have unwittingly created by compensating for the injury.

Afterword

I’ve found since meeting with my colleague that if my shoulder is particularly painful, I need to do a quick check of myself. What am I doing with my head in relation with my body? Am I letting my arms be optional add-on structures, or am I pulling them in towards my midline? And then, if I think about leaving my neck and shoulder muscles alone, the pain rapidly gets worse and then much better.

[1] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, London, Orion, 1985, p.54.

Image courtesy of yodiyim at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The fallacy of the One Right Way

“Why won’t you just tell me what to do?!”

There is no One Right Way to sit.In early lessons, students very often want me to tell them how to sit/stand/walk/whatever in the ‘right’ way. This is entirely understandable. They’ve come to me because whatever they’re doing at the moment has caused them trouble, and they want to fix it so the trouble goes away.

But there’s a logical fallacy at work, and a misunderstanding about what education is about. There’s also often a degree of self criticism. These are big topics and I want to take time to talk about them, so this week I will deal just with the logical fallacy. Next time I’ll talk about how our concept of education holds us back. Finally, I’ll talk about the issue of self criticism.

Onwards…

The logical fallacy of the One Right Way

Statement: I want to sit the right way

Logical (and emotional) consequences of statement: 

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

Let’s look at the idea that there’s a right way of, say, sitting, and at least one wrong way. It sounds like life would be very simple if there were just One Right Way of sitting on a chair. We could just learn it, use it, and not have to think about it again. But it really wouldn’t be simple at all, for this reason:

If this was true, we would first have to decide if there was only one right way, or if we would allow One Right Way for each circumstance (eg dining chair, office chair, car seat). At the very least, we’d end up with a list of Right Ways to suit our usual set of furniture and circumstances.

But what if the circumstances subtly alter – like having to get into the car with the seat a little further forward than usual? We would either have to suffer Doing Something Not Right, or make sure we constructed a set of Right Ways to deal with all conceivable changes of circumstance.

And then we’d end up with a big list of Right Ways. And we’d have to memorise them all.

That sounds like a lot of work to me. I’d much rather learn the principles behind constructing a Best Way (for now) for any circumstance as it arose, and then learn how to think and apply it moment by moment. In the end, it’s just so much easier.

And that’s what Alexander Technique lessons are: learning how to construct a Best Way (for now) for the moment that you’re in. Don’t be fooled by the apparent unthinking simplicity of the One Right Way. It leads to lists, prohibitions (mustn’t do the wrong thing!), and complexity. Go for gold, and learn how to reason out the Best Way (for now) instead.

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/

A Practice Flowchart that shows how to ‘think Alexander’ in music practice

I work a lot with musicians of all ability levels, and often face questions about how to practice effectively. I was thrilled last week when I chatted with a friend on Twitter, piano teacher Lynne Phillips, and she shared with me her Practice Flowchart. It is precisely what I’ve been trying to explain to my students! I was so impressed that I thought I would share it with you. It is far too useful a tool to be confined to piano students, or even to musicians. I think we might all learn something from the clarity of thinking and observation that Lynne Phillips describes here.

Practice Flowchart

Why love the Practice Flowchart?

What I love particularly about Lynne’s practice flowchart is that it is a clear example of a couple of key ideas from FM Alexander’s books used ‘in the wild’. It’s a clear practical application of FM’s process for protocol design, a tool he described in his third book, The Use of the Self. It’s also a good working example of the principle of ‘not allowing your enthusiasm to dominate your reason’. I’ll deal with each in turn.

A process for designing a plan

When FM Alexander was trying to find a way of solving his vocal hoarseness, he realised that he would need to create a new, reasoned plan for how to speak. If he did this, he could then use it to replace the instinctive plan that was causing his hoarseness. So he created the following steps:

(1) to analyse the conditions of use present;

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

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

We can see very clearly that the Practice Flowchart follows these steps.

Analysis of conditions present:

Sometimes a teacher will have given you something to work upon. But if not, in her blog post accompanying the flowchart, Lynne recommends playing through the music with a critical ear, looking for places that need attention.

Selecting (reasoning out) the means:

Once you have found a passage (which might be as small as a bar or two), the flowchart asks you to consider what you are trying to achieve. Having set this goal, you are then in a position to decide how best to achieve that goal.

Projecting consciously the directions to put the means into effect:

This is the part where people often feel a little hazy. I think it can be difficult to get a grasp on what FM means at this point. For the purposes of today, I am going to remark on the word ‘consciously’. You are deliberately working on just the section you chose, in the way that you chose. You are using your reasoning processes to carry out your plan. And you are staying aware of what you are doing, because at each repetition you are asking yourself how confident you are about how you underwent your process. Lynne Phillips explains:

I kept going at a section, not until I could play it particularly well or up to tempo, or anything like that, but until I felt like I knew what I was doing.  Hesitations, to me, were a sign of ‘not knowing’, as were those tiny little muscle movements where a finger begins to aim for a wrong note before diverting to the right one. [2]

Note the acute observation required here: the tiniest hesitation or deviating muscle movement is to Lynne an indicator of further work being required.

Curb your enthusiasm

The other major Alexander Technique principle we see here in practical use is that of not allowing one’s enthusiasm to overcome one’s reason. It’s mentioned by Alexander in his first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance. FM himself describes unchecked enthusiasm as the greatest danger against which he had to fight when working on his vocal problems.[3]

When we find a problem, it can be tempting to keep worrying away at it in the same way as a dog with a chewy toy. But no one works well when tired, and the kind of focussed attention we need to use in this kind of practice does wear thin. In the flowchart itself, Lynne gives an arbitrary figure of 10 repetitions. But in her accompanying blog post, Lynne Phillips fleshes out how to know when to stop:

Sometimes I get frustrated, sometimes I feel like I’m taking steps backwards, sometimes my playing just will not improve.  So what do I do? I walk away.  I try something else.  I know I can come back to the task that I couldn’t yet manage, and when I do it’ll be with a fresher mind, and without frustration or annoyance.

The Practice Flowchart contains in its structure a healthy dose of realism. If we run out of concentration, or if things aren’t improving, we walk away, and try again another day.

In conclusion…

This practice flowchart was made by a piano teacher for piano students, but I believe has a far wider relevance. I can imagine this working for sportspeople very effectively. I could even see this working as a working method for science students or language students wanting to improve their skills. ‘Thinking in activity’ is one of the better-known descriptions of FM Alexander’s work. Lynne’s practice flowchart is a clear example of thinking in activity, in my opinion, and I hope that seeing a practical example of how clear reasoning based upon detailed observation would be inspirational to us all.

 

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

[2] https://properpianofingers.com/2013/12/18/the-practice-flowchart/

[3] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.90.

The Practice Flowchart was created by Lynne Phillips ©2013, and is found at: https://properpianofingers.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/practice-flowchart.pdf

Sitting all day – is it evil?

Businessman stretching in an office

Is sitting all day evil? There are increasing numbers of articles in fashionable magazines and on trendy websites that will tell you that yes, sitting is intrinsically evil and can kill you. The Huffington Post, for example, seems to run an article on the evils of sitting every couple of months.

I mean, we always knew that sitting, especially sitting all day was a problem. Huge numbers of people experience discomfort through sitting, especially at their desks and computers. Backs, necks, shoulders all seem to beg for mercy. But now we’re told that sitting isn’t just uncomfortable – it can actually shorten your lifespan.

Is it true, and what can we do about it?

Sitting is the new smoking.

That’s the advice Marc Hamilton, director of the Inactivity Physiology Program at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, gave to the magazine Runner’s World. Apparently, sitting for long periods may cause an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase to decrease in the bloodstream. As this enzyme clears noxious fats out of the bloodstream, this is bad news. Apparently this sends out harmful biological signals that could be implicated in cardiovascular disease.

According to the articles I’ve seen, sitting still for long periods has been linked to not just obesity, but cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, though personally I’d want to see more studies come up with similar results before I got too worked up about the evidence.

But before you panic and throw away all your chairs (as some people have done, and would advise you to do – see this article), let’s examine the issue with the clear-sightedness that FM Alexander would want us to use.

 

Problem number 1: chairs are not cigarettes

Sitting is part of our normal range of movement behaviours. It’s one of the things we are designed to be able to do. If we say that one movement behaviour is intrinsically bad, how many others will we find that are just as evil or worse? What about rock climbing (all that looking upwards), or playing the violin (having your head tilted to the side can’t be good for you, surely) – should we ban those, too?

If there’s a problem with sitting all day, that’s not the chair’s fault, but ours for thinking that doing any one thing for prolonged periods isn’t going to have repurcussions. It’s a bit like food. I love chocolate, but I don’t eat it every day. I love carrots too, but if I ate them for every meal I’d soon turn orange. Who tied us down and forced us to sit in the one spot all day long?

 

Problem 2: Will exchanging standing for sitting be any better?

Instead of sitting all day, why not stand up or work out? A lot of authors out there on the web are telling their readers to exchange their chairs and conventional desks for ‘standing workstations’ or treadmill desks. Is this a good idea?

Well, it depends. FM Alexander would tell us that many of the problems we experience are not context-related (relevant only to a specific activity), but are the result of a deterioration in the general manner of use of ourselves. In other words, there’s a way we like to use our bodies – maybe tightening neck muscles, or raising shoulders, or jutting pelvis forwards – that we bring into every activity that we do. And in some of those activities that general way we like to use ourselves becomes problematic.

If this is the case (and Alexander Technique teachers down the decades have anecdotal evidence that this is true), then just swapping standing for sitting isn’t going to help, because we’re going to bring our poor manner of use along into the new activity. If we keep our shoulders raised all the time, we’re going to do that while we’re standing, and the knock-on effects of that through our whole system is going to generate achiness in just the same way it did while we were sitting. It might move or be subtly different in some way, but the cause is the same.

So the whole ‘sitting is bad for you’ campaign has two major flaws: the chair didn’t make us sit for prolonged periods, rather, we did; and there’s nothing to say that standing or using a treadmill desk is going to be any more beneficial in reducing overall harm to our systems.

What, then, should we do? I’m going to give you three top tips.

 1. Don’t sit still! Take breaks!

Chairs are just a tool, in the same way that a computer keyboard is just a tool, or a hammer is just a tool. We need to decide how to use them safely. So don’t sit still for long periods. Get up and walk around once an hour, even if it’s just to the water cooler and back. If you can’t trust yourself to remember, set a timer.

2. Think about your general use of yourself.

Do you hunch your shoulders? Do you jut your pelvis forwards, or crane your head forward on your neck? Do you permanently have one shoulder raised so your handbag won’t fall off… even if your handbag isn’t there? Start taking the time to observe yourself dispassionately, or see an Alexander Technique teacher for some advice.

3. Keep an open mind.

Read the articles. Check out the research. Make sure that you understand the issue before you do anything drastic like junk your furniture or spend thousands on a treadmill desk. Do what seems best for you in your circumstances, taking the research into account. You may well decide that the cardiovascular benefits of a treadmill desk are exactly what you need! But don’t be rushed into anything without thinking about it.

Maybe Hamlet had it right when he said “there’s nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Let’s stop blaming the tools, and start reasoning out how to use them effectively.