The musician:
“I wish I didn’t get so nervous before I perform. It’s so destructive and stressful.”

 

The actor:
“I feel like my voice is squeezed out like toothpaste from a tube.”

 

The office worker:
“At the end of a day on the computer my back just screams at me.”

 

The runner:
“After a run, the bit of me that feels like it’s worked the most is – my neck!”

Jen working with viola player

Decision making and the power of choice – why loss shouldn’t hold us back

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Do you find decision making easy, or is your power to decide crippled by the knowledge of the loss of the alternatives once you’ve committed to one option?
A friend of mine told me the story recently of a student of hers, who had had the misfortune to lose all her university coursework in a house fire (she was lucky to have survived herself). With a supreme effort, the student was able to do extremely well in her final assignments, but narrowly missed getting a First.
The student asked my friend if she should appeal. My friend replied that she’d have a strong chance of having her degree lifted to a First, but that it would take time and mean her not graduating at the same time as her friends. Which was more important to her?
The student decided to graduate with her friends, and to give the higher grading a miss. When my friend saw the student at the graduation ceremony, the student was having a wonderful time with her friends. She was at peace with her decision.

Decision making as loss

I love this story because it gets to the essence of something I’ve been thinking about recently (thanks to a lovely post by my friend Susan T Blake). Decision making can be so very difficult sometimes, because every decision we make has with it an element of loss.
Sometimes that loss is small (flat white or latte?). But sometimes the choice is far more difficult, as each option has a significant joy, and its loss a significant cost. The student gave up a First – that is a loss. But to choose the First over graduating with friends would have entailed a different loss – the loss of fellowship and shared experience.

The fork in the road

One of the most important concepts in Alexander Technique is that of ‘the fork in the road’, where we find ourselves having a choice between two alternatives.* The most usual one in an Alexander Technique lesson is the choice between the old, familiar way of thinking/moving, and the new and unfamiliar way of thinking/moving. My job as a teacher is to stand at the fork in the road between these two alternatives, and point to the path of the new and unfamiliar, suggesting that it might be worth trying out!
There are, however, other kinds of choices, and other forks in the road. Sometimes someone will present you with a choice (a First or a peer group experience), and ask you to make up your mind which option you want to take. Sometimes you may even present yourself with the choice.
But these choices are sneakier than the one Mr Alexander paints for us. Unlike Alexander’s fork in the road, where the man knows the destination he wishes to reach, in the First/friends choice the destination is not defined. We are being asked (or asking ourselves) to make a choice when we don’t immediately know which one gets us closer to where we want to go.

Decision making and core values

These choices are difficult because the outcomes are not clear. We don’t know what will suit our needs best. And we may be placed (or place ourselves) under pressure to make a decision quickly, before we have had sufficient opportunity to decide which option aligns best with our core values.** And sometimes the difficulty of the choice stems from the fact that it highlights an area where we haven’t really considered what values are most important to us!
So what should we do?
  1. Stop and breathe. No one should expect an instant answer!
  2. Consider the options given. What core values or principles do they represent? For example, a First = academic excellence. Friends = value on social ties and affections.
  3. Check these against your own core values. Which option fits best with your own value structure? Or is this a chance to decide what our core values are?
  4. Decide if there might be any other, better, courses of action. Just because you are presented with two options doesn’t mean there aren’t more options possible…
  5. Choose something and commit to the consequences.
And take note of that last step. Yes, whatever you choose will entail losing the benefits of the choice not taken. My friend’s student didn’t get quite the degree they merited, and that is a real and genuine loss. But what would have been far worse, and far more damaging, would have been to choose an option and then spend time regretting the loss of the other.
And there is one thing that is even worse. Yes, even worse than regret.
Just standing at the crossroads and not ever deciding. That is the most deadening option of all.
*Alexander, F.M., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.299.
** ‘Core values’ is a term I borrow from life coach and all-round fab guy Tim Brownson. He writes a superb blog at http://www.adaringadventure.com/blog/
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mage by Kittisak from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Revealed at last: 2 liberating secrets about being a newbie (at anything).

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Secret number 1: Newbies are allowed to ‘suck’

Here is the liberating truth. If you’re a newbie, you’re allowed to ‘suck’. You are allowed to be joyfully, liberatingly bad at the activity you’re trying.

Of course, most of us don’t give ourselves this pleasure. Instead, we expect ourselves to be good at this new thing. Not just passable, you’ll notice. We want to be good.

And this is just a little bit crazy.

Think about it. You’re walking onto a tennis court for the first time in your life. You’ve seen it played, but you’ve never picked up a racquet before. You don’t know how to hit the ball, don’t know how to serve. Is it reasonable, then, to expect yourself to be able to hit backhand winners down the line in the style of Roger Federer? Probably not!

But this is what we so frequently do. I clearly remember giving up chess at age 7 after my first ever attempt at a game because I wasn’t instantly successful. I can think of other occasions where I’ve seen children and adults make similar decisions.

Can you think of a time when you’ve done something similar?

FM Alexander had just such an experience when he was trying to find a way of undoing the vocal hoarseness that was threatening his acting career. He thought that just because he’d used his vocal tract in a certain way for a prolonged period, he’d be able to change the way he used it and do the new thing just as accurately, just as easily. But it simply wasn’t the case.

Alexander realised that he wasn’t the only one to make this error, and named the phenomenon a universal delusion:

because we are able to do what we “will to do” in acts that are habitual and involve familiar sensory experiences, we shall be equally successful in doing what we “will to do” in acts which are contrary to our habit and therefore involve sensory experiences that are unfamiliar. *

Just because I can play tennis does not mean I can play badminton. Just because I can drive a car, I shouldn’t expect to be able to ride a bicycle. Just because I can play recorder to a fairly decent standard, I should NOT expect to be near-instantly performance standard on an oboe – I would almost certainly sound like I was strangling a duck.

And that would be okay, because I’d be new at it!

 

Secret number 2: you might be a newbie and not even realise it!

Sometimes we are really bad at recognising that we are doing a new activity. We can be fooled into thinking it’s just the same thing as something else we do successfully, when in fact it is a different activity, involving different techniques and a totally different means of approach.

I realised the full force of this the first time I picked up a renaissance recorder and tried to play some really tricky consort music with it. Yes, it’s a recorder. But it has subtly different fingerings, a different bore requiring different breathe pressure, and a different orientation of arm joints to reach the holes comfortably. It is a different activity.

This principle also cropped up just the other week in the presentation skills class I’m teaching at the moment. It is tempting to think that because we all speak to each other all the time quite successfully, that doing a presentation or a speech is just an extension of the speaking we do all the time. But it isn’t.

Just because we can all speak DOES NOT MEAN that we know how to deliver a presentation to a group of people. Talking to friends and giving a work presentation both involve talking, it is true. But the presentation isn’t the same activity. It is a different skill involving different technical aspects and completely different levels of preparation. And if a person goes into a presentation not realising that it’s a new activity and then has a bad experience, it can sow the seeds of anxiety which could develop into full-blown stage fright. And all because they’d miscategorised the presentation as something that they knew how to do.

Before you do that activity, ask yourself:

  • Do I really know what I’m doing, or are there enough ‘uncharted’ aspects to make this a new experience?
  • Have I prepared sufficiently?
  • Am I okay with not being outstanding at this activity? Bluntly, am I okay with the idea of failing?

This isn’t about reducing standards, nor is it about settling for average. This is about recognising that everybody has to start somewhere. If you give yourself the luxury of mistakes and stuff-ups, you’ll be approaching whatever it is you’re learning with an unstressed, free and creative state of mind. And this, in turn, will give you the firm foundation to learn and progress.

 

* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.417.
Image by Qrodo photos (Flickr creative commons)

Beat performance plateaus by changing point of view

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Performance plateau?

Are you experiencing a point of difficulty in one of your hobbies or work activities? Perhaps you can’t quite hit that tennis forehand the way you’d like, or nail that top G reliably? Possibly you’ve always thought the problem was intractable, or that you’d reached a ceiling on your abilities.

But have you considered that the reason why you’ve plateaued could be because you’re getting in your own way?

Performance plateau: the young swimmer

I had a taste of this from my son the other day. On the way home from school, he said he didn’t like swimming any more. I asked him why. He said it was because the teacher kept telling him to put his head in the water while swimming freestyle lengths. “But I do put my head in the water!” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes! … Some of the time…” he said, rather less vehemently.
“Okay. When do you put your head in the water?”
“I put it in for a bit, then I lift it up to breathe,” he replied.
“Ah. Is that what the teacher wants you to do to breathe?”
“Well, no. But it’s the way I do it.”
“Do you think the teacher would stop telling you off if you did what she asked?”
“Yes,” my son said. “But I want to do it my way.”

 

“My way” – Performance plateaus as a state of mind

And there you have it in a nutshell.

Most of us, when we go about the activities that make up our day-to-day lives, have ways that we like to do them. The ways we choose are based on our personal preferences, our experiences, and our beliefs about the right way to go about things.

But what if we’re wrong? What if our way is not the best way? What if our way of doing things is, in fact, the cause of the performance plateau that we’re experiencing?

FM Alexander was able to write that, after 20 years of teaching experience, he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are the cause of the major part of his difficulties.”*

Even worse than this, Alexander goes on to say that if a person has a very fixed idea of “their way” of doing things, they are likely to go on trying to do things “their way” even after the teacher has demonstrated that their way can’t be relied upon! My son, for example, knows that his swimming teacher is correct, and that his way of breathing is not helping him. But no amount of the teacher yelling at him is going to make him stop!

So what will?

 

A change of mind as the key to breaking performance plateaus

My son needs to change his mind. Currently he is held back by, to borrow Alexander’s phrase, his “fixed and unreasoning conception” about what he needs to do to breathe while swimming freestyle. He will need, in short, to give up his desire to feel right, in order to do the thing that will increase effectiveness.

 

Here are the steps to take:

  • A touch of honesty. Are you like my son – do you secretly know what is holding you back?
  • Thinking about teacher/mentor feedback. Are you consistently being given the same criticisms in feedback? Can you recognise these criticisms in your own performance?
  • Listening to teacher/mentor advice. Are you being given advice that you’re not following? Maybe you could have a go at trying it, if only to prove your teacher wrong!
  • Loosen up and be prepared to feel ‘wrong’. Sometimes, letting go of what seems ‘right’ is the only way forward. Loosen your grip, and see what happens!

Performance plateaus are not a lot of fun. Even though it might be scary, why not try tearing up the rule book you’ve got in your head, and have a go at the thing that feels ‘wrong’? And let me know how it turns out.

 

*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT edition, p.294.
Image by Tup Wanders, flickr creative commons.

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

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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.

Don’t be discouraged by failure: tips for a great year from Alexander and Caesari

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This week I’m completing my mini-series inspired by the singing teacher Caesari’s warning to singing students.

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.*

Firstly I talked about the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm. Last week, we looked at the second of Caesari’s warnings, that of being impatient about results. To end the series, we’ll investigate the dangers of being discouraged by failure, and consider whether it might be more sensible to learn from failure instead.

Why we hate failure

We hate it because it sucks, and it feels bad.

Let’s flesh that out a little. If we fail, it means that we had a goal. we wanted to achieve something, probably something important to us. We planned, we invested ourselves in our goals emotionally, we put in the time. When the time came, we attempted to follow our plan, and it went wrong.

When it all goes wrong, we feel downhearted because we didn’t reach our goals. This is normal and completely reasonable. We didn’t achieve what we wanted to achieve, and we feel the loss not just of the goal, but of the time invested and the emotional energy spent. FM Alexander was no stranger to this stinging sense of disappointment. While trying to work out what he was doing while using his voice to cause his vocal problems, Alexander often took wrong turnings or failed to do what he intended. And when he failed, he definitely felt it: “This indeed was a blow. If ever anyone was in an impasse, it was I.”**

Running from failure

Failing hurts because we didn’t achieve what we wanted. But more than that, very often we take it personally:

“I didn’t make the team, so I must be a bad player.”
“I didn’t get that high note. Everyone knows I’m a rubbish singer.”
“My book didn’t sell. I should quit writing now and stop making a fool of myself.”

Notice that these hypothetical people go one step further than just feeling disappointment. They utilise one or more cognitive distortions and draw incorrect and unfounded conclusions that bear little relation to the event. They manufacture feelings of embarrassment and shame, and then run from them. They may even quit the activity rather than face failure again!

Please don’t quit – there is a better alternative…

Learn from failure

One of the most striking character traits of FM Alexander – in my opinion – is his determination. Because he was passionate about his chosen career, he kept fighting to solve his vocal problems even in the face of a stream of failures and disappointments. He keeps writing sentences like this:

“Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that my problem was hopeless.”***

Do you, like me, find that sentence tremendously encouraging? I love the way that Alexander could feel the disappointment, then put it to one side and keep reasoning out new courses of action. More than that, Alexander realised the value of his failures as a resource:

“I practised patiently month after month, as I had been doing hitherto, with varying experiences of success and failure, but without much enlightenment. In time, however, I profited by these experiences…”****

Even though he didn’t know how the failures could help him at the time, Alexander knew that the experience would be useful at some point. He knew that failures could help him progress, even if he didn’t understand how at the point when the failure occurred. By analysing the failures, he could begin to understand how they occurred and why.

Learn from failure by…

  • Collecting your failures. Store them up.
  • Analyse them. Are there patterns? Any obvious errors or things that you overlooked?
  • Getting feedback. If you have a teacher, coach or mentor, ask them for feedback. And try to have someone in your camp who will cheer you on even when you lose or fail.
  • Use the information you’ve gathered and create a plan for your new attempt.

For example…

If you didn’t make the team, there may be any number of reasons. Maybe there were better players there on the day. Maybe you made a mistake or two. Maybe the coaches just decided you needed more time to prepare. It does not mean you are a bad player. Ask your coaches what you should work on to improve your game, and keep playing.

You didn’t get the high note? It’s a shame, yes. Some of the audience might notice, but most of them won’t. And will one missed note destroy the integrity of the rest of your singing? Probably not. Keep practising. Work out why the top note didn’t work, and then perform again.

There might be any number of reasons why your book didn’t sell, and the quality of your writing is only one of the possible options. Have you investigated the others?

Don’t run from failure. Feel it. Learn from it. Learning how to learn from failure is probably one of the biggest and most significant steps you could make on your road to success.

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.420.
*** ibid.
**** ibid., p.418.

Impatient about results? Tips for a great year from Alexander and Caesari.

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This week I’m continuing my mini-series inspired by the singing teacher Caesari’s warnings to singing students. Last week I talked about the dangers of unbridled enthusiasm. This week, we look at the second of Caesari’s warnings, that of being impatient about results:

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.*

 

We’ll look first at why we want measurable results fast, then at why this is unrealistic. Finally, I’ll leave us with a couple of ideas to help counter our thirst for results.

 

Impatient about results: I want improvement, and I want it NOW!

On any new activity or goal we’re working on, or even if we’re working to improve something we’re already doing, the one thing we’re looking for is improvement.

If I take singing lessons, I want my singing to get better.

If I go to French classes, I want to come out after a few lessons with at least a smattering of French.

If I go running, I want to start feeling fitter.

But we don’t just want improvement. We don’t just want results. We want those results to be measurable, and we want that measurable improvement quickly. We suffer, to use Caesari’s words, impatient expectation of rapid measurable results.

And life often just doesn’t work that way.

 

Why results (often) don’t come quickly.

Even if we are learning a whole new skill (as I did last year with tennis), we still are likely to have preconceptions about what the activity involves, how it is meant to be done, how successful we are likely to be, and what body parts we are going to have to use to do it. We are full of preconceptions.**

Part of learning anything is learning to give up what you think you know in order to take on board the ideas that you could never have dreamed of. And this is sometimes a hard task. We are almost preconditioned to hold on to the things we know – they are ours, we thought of them, and we like them. Letting go can be difficult. And yet this is what we must do.

Sometimes it will be fast. We will make terrific process.

Sometimes it is slow. It feels like it is taking forever. Sometimes I feel like I would rather chew my own foot off than have to wait any longer for improvement in the areas that I’m working on! But change comes. In its own time. And it probably won’t look anything like what you thought it would.

At this point, it is practically irresistible to begin feeling impatient about results, get frustrated, ‘chuck a wobbly’, ‘throw your toys out of the pram’. But let’s not, just for a moment, because it’s usually at this point that I remember my all-time favourite quote from FM Alexander.

…where the “means-whereby” are right for the purpose, desired ends will come. They are inevitable. Why then be concerned as to the manner or speed of their coming? We should reserve all thought, energy and concern for the means whereby we may command the manner of their coming.***

I love this quote because it reminds me that if I’m following a well-designed process, if I’m keeping my enthusiasm in check and using my head, then I cannot fail to have success. I just don’t know how long it will take.

 

How to avoid impatient expectation of rapid results

These are my tips:

  • Keep a list (either mental or on paper) of things that have improved. My own favourite example is playing musical passages that I used to find too difficult, but that I can now play easily. Look at the list whenever you start to feel impatient, and remind yourself of how frustrated you used to feel about the thing that is now simple for you.
  • If you feel frustrated, take a break. Go for a walk or a run. Put on some music and dance around the house. If you release some of the mental energy, you may well find that you’ve solved the issue blocking your progress without having to ‘think’ about it.
  • Remember that frustration and impatience are also signs of growth. When you think about it, this makes sense. If we always stay within what is comfortable and easy, then we don’t ever reach the limits of what is possible for us.

Impatience and frustration, of themselves, are not detrimental. What is truly destructive is allowing impatience and frustration to be the excuse to quit. Why not dance instead?

 

* E. Herbert-Caesari, The Alchemy of Voice, Robert Hale, London, 1965, p.22.
** See FM Alexander’s wonderful chapter ‘Incorrect Conception’ in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual for a fuller description of this.
*** FM Alexander, The Universal Constant in Living in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.587.

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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Decision making and FOMO: what FM would say…

decision-making

Are you good at decision making, or are you plagued by those modern evils, Fear of Commitment and Fear of Missing Out? This post is about why decision making is a fundamental skill within Alexander Technique, and how you can do it better.

Decision making fail – leaning on the fence

A week or so ago I had the great pleasure of taking my family along to the ExCeL conference centre in London to see the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebration. It was a massive exhibition – tons of displays of costumes and props, lots of stalls selling things, and lots of demonstrations and theatre shows in a number of small spaces.

Many of these small spaces were defined within the large exhibition space by little fences. Inside each fence there were chairs and a stage. The fence was small, and though you could easily see over the top, staying outside to watch the demonstrations wasn’t exactly comfortable. The fence was rickety and wobbled every time it was touched, and the crowds bustled past constantly.

But that didn’t stop people. Every time I walked past one of these little theatre spaces, only about a third of the chairs inside was filled, but the fence was lined entirely by people leaning uncertainly against the rickety barrier and watching from the outside.

They didn’t want to commit. If you went inside you got a (more or less) comfy seat, but it also made it harder to leave if you didn’t like the show. And who was to say that there might not be a better show starting in the next space in just a few minutes?

So most people decided to hedge their bets, and spend an entire 40 minute show jammed against a wobbly barrier while the crowds brushed past.

Decision making and reasoning

Now, I admit that I’m not the world’s best decision maker. But I do know that standing around in a crowded passageway for 40 minutes just to ‘keep my options open’ is what FM Alexander would disparagingly call ‘unreasoned’. It stems from a fear of making the wrong choice, and a lingering worry that we might be missing out on something ‘better’. But really, does it really matter if there’s a better show than the one we’re watching, especially if it will take use half of the show time to push through the crowds to get to it?

If FM Alexander had worried about making the wrong choice about what experiments to make while he was trying to find the solution to his vocal troubles, we wouldn’t have the Alexander Technique today. FM made tons of mistakes. He went up conceptual blind alleys, tried wrong things, and even realised at one point that “all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.” (p.419)

But he never let his errors stop him. Indeed, more than once in Evolution of a Technique (the chapter in which he describes the creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique), he says clearly that he profited from the experiences he had from his mistakenness – the experience helped him to form new ideas and new experiments to try. (see p.418, p.424)

 Decision making – which side of the fence are you on?

Ultimately, there are very few decisions where the outcome is really that crucial. Most things can be changed, or improved upon. Most decisions will not be completely bad or wrong – we can learn from most things.

Therefore, don’t sit (or lean) on the fence.

Try that new restaurant or cafe.

Try that new watercolour brush technique.

Try playing that phrase with a different fingering pattern.

Try a different route home.

In the vast majority of circumstances, even if the choice turns out to be less than optimal, it won’t matter that much. You might end up with a lesser cup of coffee, or it might take you five minutes longer to get home. But if you don’t try, you might end up missing the best cup of coffee you ever tasted.

If you lean on the fence for too long, you’ll just end up with sore feet.

 

“You can do what I do”… 5 hints from FM Alexander about what it takes if you want to improve posture (or anything else).

search for clues to improve posture

Do you want to improve posture (or anything else, for that matter), but feel a bit stuck as to how to go about it? Today’s post may have some answers…

I’ve been a bit silent for the past few weeks on the blogging front. Apologies. I have been very busy researching and writing lectures for a new course I am teaching at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, this time to the music degree students. It is a course that is part experiential Alexander Technique, and part lecture-based presentation of FM Alexander’s ‘Evolution of a Technique.’
It has been a real learning curve for me, never mind my students. I have been studying Alexander’s text in a depth that I haven’t ever quite managed before. It has been revelatory.

What I have discovered is a whole new perspective on the journey that all students face on the road from threatened passion on to improvement and ease. Marjory Barlow, amongst others, recounts that FM often used to say, “You can do what I do, if you will do what I did.” But what exactly did FM Alexander do?

The points below are some of what I believe are the essential markers of FM’s journey from a threatened acting career to an improved voice and a whole new vocation. I think we could all benefit greatly if we took some of these points on board.

 

“I must try and find out for myself.”

FM suffered vocal problems, so he did the obvious thing and went to the doctor. He tried all that was available to sort out any medical problem that may have existed. This is really important. If there is a medical issue, you need to get it sorted out by a medical person. But FM suspected that the reason why the medical solutions didn’t help was because his troubles didn’t have a medical origin. He suspected he was doing something while speaking that caused his problem. So he decided to find out.

The learning point:

If you’ve got issues that you suspect aren’t medical, be thorough and check out the medical, but also think about finding out if you’re right. And no one can do this for you. An Alexander Technique teacher is trained to help and offer principles to help you on the path. But ultimately, you have to do the work yourself.

 

“I could do no harm by making an experiment.”

FM knew his problem occurred while reciting, so he watched himself in a mirror, first in ordinary speaking and then when reciting, in order to see what differences there may be between the two activities. And he didn’t just do it once. He did it many times.

This is classic scientific method: look at the evidence, make a guess about why things are the way they are, construct a way of testing if you’re right, and then run the test several times.

The learning point:

Think about your issue. Can you construct a way of testing its extent or causes?

 

“I found myself in a maze. For where was I to begin?”

There are many occasions, especially in the first half of Evolution of a Technique, where FM Alexander has made so many observations, has so many different things to test and try, so much on his plate, that it is almost overwhelming. So what does he do? He picks a place to start, and keeps experimenting.

The learning point:

When you’re bogged down and don’t know what to do first, sometimes the best thing to do is just pick a spot, and start there. You’ll soon find out if there was somewhere better!

 

“…all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.”

FM had vocal problems, and tried to trace backwards to find out what was causing them. He found some physical movement patterns of his head in relation with first his neck, then his whole body, which seemed to be the cause. So he tried to stop doing them, and even to do something else. And while he had some small degree of success, he found he wasn’t able to do all the things he wanted to do. FM found himself down a cul de sac.

The learning point:

That happens to all of us. We try something, and it doesn’t seem to work. Failure is normal and to be expected.

 

“Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that the problem was hopeless.”

If there’s one quality (other than passion) that characterises FM Alexander, it is that he was tenacious. He experienced massive setbacks in his quest to solve his vocal issues, yet he didn’t allow his disappointment to get the better of him. Seth Godin recently wrote a blog about the difference between being tenacious and persistent. Telemarketers, says Seth, are persistent, because they keep pestering. Seth continues:

“Tenacity is using new data to make new decisions to find new pathways to find new ways to achieve a goal when the old ways didn’t work.”

This, for me, typifies FM Alexander. He kept looking for new data, made new decisions, tried new pathways, and discovered amazing things as a result.

The learning point:

What can you do today to be tenacious in pursuit of your goal?

These are just 5 things that I have discovered during my journey with FM Alexander in Evolution of a Technique, all from the first half of the chapter. There’s plenty more in the next half!

Which brings me to a question…

My RWCMD students have been getting enormous benefit out of studying FM’s journey in detail – even though the majority (contrary to what I’d been told to expect) had never even heard of Alexander Technique before entering my classroom. So I’m wondering… how many more people would really enjoy an in-depth class looking at Evolution of a Technique?

I’m thinking of making a class that does just that: a study of Evolution of a Technique. Course notes, discussion time, plenty of time for questions, and held both in person here in Bristol, and online via Skype.

Would you be interested in a course like that? If so,  send me an email and let me know. I honestly have no idea if there’s any interest out there for a course like this, so PLEASE, if you’re interested, contact me and let me know.

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Hi, I’m Jen. I came to study Alexander Technique when I was looking for solutions for my own problems with RSI-like difficulties. Now I teach in Bristol and Cardiff. Read more