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

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

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

Little better than chance?

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

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

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

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

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

Two areas of attack to keep success going

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

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

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

Alexander recognised two things:

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

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

Keep success going with mental practice

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

Work on your general co-ordination.

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

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

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

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

How do you practise Alexander Technique?

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

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

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

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

We think we know what practising looks like.

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

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

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

Working indirectly

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

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

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

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

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

Simple answer: yes. For two reasons:

Changing point of view

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

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

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

Getting out of thought grooves

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

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

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

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

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