Working from first principles: you’ve been told to begin at the beginning, but especially if you already know a little bit about the subject area, is it really necessary? If you’re learning something new, or even if you’re doing a refresher in something you already know, it is really tempting to skip the early stuff. Often, first principles can feel like a bit of a waste of time.
I am currently doing a course written and presented by marketing guru and all-round amazing thinker Seth Godin. I’ve been freelancing for years, so after I paid for the course and I looked at the title of the first video, I must confess my heart sank a little. It said ‘Why be a freelancer’. I’ve been running my own teaching practice for years, so my first reaction was to assume I’d done that bit of thinking long ago, and didn’t need to go over it again.
But I listened, and I did the exercises, at first out of duty (I mean, I paid for this!), but very quickly out of excitement. Through going back to first principles, I was rediscovering the reasons why I started teaching and freelancing in the first place. I re-connected with the reasons why I do what I do. It was inspiring!
And that is the gift of going back to the beginning, and allowing yourself to start again from the first principles behind what you do. It gives you the chance to rediscover ideas that you’d forgotten, and hopefully to find again the passion that got you started in the first place.
First principles – different every time
And the beauty of it is that when you encounter ‘beginner’ principles as a non-beginner, they don’t look the same as when you first learned them. I remember when I went back to first principles as a recorder player, and asked myself what I needed to do to play so-called ‘pinch’ notes (higher register notes that require part of the left thumb hole to be uncovered). I discovered just how little of the thumb hole needs to be uncovered for the higher notes to sound. I discovered that I really didn’t need to do very much with my hands to achieve the notes. It was monumental.
This was the process that FM Alexander went through when he created what we now call the Alexander Technique. He was trying to solve vocal problems that caused him to lose his voice onstage. He took that fact – that the problem only occurred onstage and not off – made some hypotheses, and then set out to test them. Every time he ran into trouble, every time it seemed like he’d hit a brick wall, what did FM do? He went right back to the beginning, to those first hypotheses.* And he’d test them all again. Each time the act of going back was a spur to new thinking. He’d go back to first principles, but with the knowledge gained from the false starts.
So don’t be afraid of first principles. They will help you.
Getting the basics right helps you to move faster in the long run – you won’t have to go back and correct mistakes
If you do get stuck, going back to first principles means that you can experience them again on a different level – they’ll be different because you are
Going back to the beginning gives you the chance to make different choices.
And remember – there’s no such thing as wasted effort. You can learn from the false starts just as much as the successes. Have fun, and if you’ve got a question, just contact me and do my best to help.
* FM Alexander, Use of the Self, IRDEAT edition, p.417: “I saw that the whole situation would have to be reconsidered. I went back to the beginning again, to my original conclusion…”
Reducing muscle tension (and mental commitment to that tension) is often a key component in Alexander Technique lessons. Frequently, a student will have a good experience related to reducing muscle tension, and they’ll ask: why am I doing this apparently pointless bit of muscular tension that actually hurts and gets in the way of me achieving what I want? If reducing muscle tension in this activity is good, then why don’t I do it? Why do I keep the old way?
It’s a great question, and deserves some thought. So… Let’s think about it like it’s an object in a house. Why do people keep physical things? They might keep an object because…
They think they need it. (My husband’s computer cable collection falls into this category)
They forget they’ve got it. (My son is a master at putting a toy in the bottom of a box, forgetting about it, and then rediscovering it the next time we do a major clean-out of his room)
They think it might come in useful. (Again, my husband’s computer cable collection springs to mind)
They’re afraid of what other people would say if they got rid of it. (Gifts from relations might fit here, or Great Aunt Edna’s hideous pottery pig collection)
They’re afraid they might need it at some point in the future. In other words, they’re afraid to get rid of it.
They like it.
There’s no right or wrong answer. If you like it and you want to keep it, who am I (or anyone else) to judge you? But if it gets in the way of your other stated goals (like having a clutter-free house) then we might reserve the right to question you about it. If you then decide that you like or want the object in question, then it isn’t anyone else’s business if you keep it.
The same goes with muscular tension. If you have an idea about the task at hand which leads you to move physically in a way that prevents you from achieving your goals, the Alexander Technique teacher’s job is to draw your attention to it. We will get in the way of the physical tension. We will present reasons why doing something else might be good. And then we will (or should) leave you to make up your own mind.*
Why? If what we are suggesting is better, if it will help you to achieve your goals more easily and more quickly, then why don’t we try to cajole you into doing something different? For the same reason that no one should make you get rid of your Great Aunt Edna’s pottery pig collection. It would be rude. It would be unkind, and none of our business.
And even more importantly – and this is where reducing muscle tension is different to pottery pigs – positive change (like reducing muscle tension) is nearly inevitable anyway. Alexander Technique teachers work from the principle that your body is geared towards health, wellness, and optimum performance. It takes time and energy to force your mind and body to do the unnecessary, harmful, unproductive stuff – you’ve really got to work hard to create it. So when you’re ready, you’ll stop.
And when you stop, we’ll be ready and waiting to cheer you on.
* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed, p.88: “by teaching I understand the placing of facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties, and to his latent powers of originality. He should be allowed to think for himself, and should not be crammed with other people’s ideas .” FM wrote it about children, but it sounds good enough to apply to adults, too!
Is it possible to get better quickly – to make substantial and long-lasting improvements to your wellbeing and the way you move – using the Alexander Technique?
I read a blog recently by a colleague of mine which said that the Alexander technique is not a quick fix. in one sense this is true. It isn’t a quick fix in the sense that going to the doctor is a quick fix. If I have a throat infection, I go to the GP, spend a couple of minutes answering questions and having my throat examined, and go away with a prescription for antibiotics (probably). As long as I take the pills, the infection goes away pretty quickly. I don’t need to think about it much at all, beyond scheduling in the pills.
In this sense, the Alexander Technique is not a quick fix: you don’t go to an Alexander lesson pick up one or two tips, and then go away cured. The Alexander technique is not a magic bullet. It is, rather, a process involving change of thought. Which may look a lot like a magic bullet, if you change the right thoughts in the right places.
You see, I don’t want you to think that the Alexander Technique is long and arduous. I don’t want you to think that it is always difficult, or that it is always hard work. It is generally only as hard as you make it for yourself. Sometimes changes take a long time, but often in my experience, They happen very quickly indeed.
For example, early in my career I worked with a student who suffered from severe sciatica that caused her to have to spend days in bed. She initially approached me to see if there was anything that she was doing that was making the condition worse. The sciatic discomfort disappeared after three lessons, and she stopped having lessons altogether after lesson number seven. I haven’t seen her since.
Yes, you can get better quickly with the Alexander Technique.
So what do you have to do to get better quickly with the Alexander Technique? My colleague Nicola puts it very simply in her blog.* We get better quickly when we satisfy three simple criteria:
We are prepared to change.
We’re prepared to learn how to stop doing things the way we’ve done them in the past.
We are prepared to take the time needed to do this.
In other words, if you want to make substantive improvements in the way you are going about your activities, you need to have a genuine desire to change, the humility to admit that you might be doing them inefficiently, and the discipline and drive to work at change. FM Alexander put it like this:
“What is required is … a calm, clear, open-eyed intelligence, a ready, adaptive outlook, an outlook, believe me, which does not connote indefiniteness of purpose or uncertainty of initiative.”**
So if you want to make improvements to your wellbeing and the ease with which you complete your daily life; if, in short, you want to get better quickly, then don’t look for the magic bullet. The resources for change are inside you, ready and waiting.
* If you live in Edinburgh, please do contact my colleague Nicola for lessons – she’s brilliant and really lovely.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT edition, p.64.
Image by David Castillo Dominici, FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Do you find yourself, as you are competing or performing, veering off into a fruitless evaluation of how you are doing? Do you find yourself obsessing about that difficult semi-quaver passage coming up, or worrying about your aching knee or your breathing?
Sometimes the temptation to indulge in an evaluation of how you are doing mid-performance can be almost overwhelming. Believe me, I know this. But I also know that it is utterly useless, and can’t get you to where you want to be. And the other day I had a very tangible physical demonstration of that principle.
For a little while now I’ve been on the email list of personal success coach Ramit Sethi, and when he offered a free course on increasing your potential that he had titled Hell Week, the challenge it threw down was impossible for me to resist. And what was the first challenge in Hell Week? To push past your ideas on your physical limitations by either doing 1000 push-ups or by doing a 21 minute plank. I chose the latter option, thinking (possibly naively) that it sounded like the easier of the two.
It wasn’t easy. I discovered that planking for long periods uses many more muscles than I initially realised. More importantly, however, I discovered that it wasn’t just a physical challenge. It was just as much a mental challenge, if not more.
When you’re in the middle of the activity, your brain doesn’t stop. Sounds obvious, but think about the implications of that. What are you going to think about as you’re doing the exercise? What are you going to think about as you do the run, or the performance?
What I discovered was this: evaluation mid-exercise doesn’t work. If you congratulate yourself about how well you’re doing, suddenly the exercise gets harder. If you think about the pain, it gets harder. If you think about how much time there is left, it gets harder.
This is the physical equivalent of what musicians have known time immemorial. If you congratulate yourself about the phrase you just played well, you are more likely to make a mistake. If you berate yourself for a mistake just made, you are more likely to go even further wrong. If you worry about what is coming up, you are also likely to go wrong.
The reason is simple. If you are indulging in evaluation, whether good or bad, or if you are anticipating what is to come, you aren’t in the present moment. Your body is in the present, but your mind and your focus are stuck in either the past or the future. And if your focus is not on the present, you can’t influence it.
This is what I learned from doing the 21 minute plank: keeping one’s mind in the present moment is the surest way to success. If you just think of the now, the present moment, it isn’t as hard. The pain isn’t the enemy. The semi-quaver passages and the composer are not the enemy.
You are – potentially – your enemy. You are also potentially your greatest asset.
Where are you going to place your attention? Well, obviously choosing the present moment is a great idea, but how do you achieve that? Many people would want you to focus on the goal. I’m not going to suggest that, because it may do more harm than good. Instead, I’m going to direct you to the work of FM Alexander.
FM Alexander’s suggestion would be to concentrate your thoughts on the means you are going to follow to attain your ends instead of thinking about your goal:
“stress must be laid on the point that it is the means and not the end which must be considered. When the end is held in the mind, instinct or long habit will always seek to attain the end by habitual methods.”(MSI 119)
Alexander would want you to have a goal, absolutely, but in his this passage from his first book he draws a very clear distinction between giving the orders (the mental creation) of the act, and the physical performance (the physical creation) of it. The first you can influence, shape and mould. The second is the outcome of that moulding process.
When I was doing the plank, for example, if I thought about the goal of the exercise (21minutes?!) the enormity of it was so crushing that I experienced an immediate stress reaction that impacted directly upon my stamina and ability to do the work. If I just kept thinking about my breathing and my form, I was able to keep going.
Similarly, my musician students often report the experience that, if they think of what is coming up in the music, they feel anxious; or if they have a big performance, they often feel weighed down by the scale of the task. If they just concentrate on the notes and what they want to convey, the nerves and anxiety vanish: they are too busy to be bothered with them!
My experience, and that of my students, is that staying in the NOW is the key. Not evaluating, not thinking about the goal. Staying in the now.
One of the most important books currently out there in the realms of psychology and self development must surely be Carol Dweck’s Mindset. You may have seen her TED talk – it’s well worth viewing if you haven’t.
I find her work on mindset very appealing not just because it explains why some people seem to have an inbuilt resilience and ability to overcome minor failures and hurdles in their fields of endeavour. More interestingly, every time I read her ideas, I am reminded of a line of FM Alexander’s first book, Man’s Supreme Inheritance:
“a changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.”
Here is a little slideshow I made that explains the basics of Dweck’s concept of the mindset. It tells you what mindset is, and more importantly, how we can use the theory of mindset to help us understand how to learn and grow.
Practice is one of those concepts that everyone knows is important, but most of us feel we don’t do well. I’ve written about this issue before. It’s partly that we haven’t been taught how to do it properly. If we’re honest, though, often we also struggle with the discipline of it: it can feel so difficult to commit to devoting time to something that we fear may be a little like drudgery.
Here’s a little slideshow I made that speaks to the issue of practice: it’s a short introduction to why practice is important, and a couple of ideas on how to do it well.
Imitation is a powerful force in teaching – any music teacher or sports coach will agree. But is it a force for good? FM Alexander, creator of the Alexander Technique, clearly was not convinced of its efficacy. He even reportedly told his teacher trainees, “Don’t copy me!” So what’s the problem with imitation?
Imitation in practice
Last week I took my son, a budding classical guitarist, to see the guitar sensation Milos Karadaglic in concert. It was well worth it, particularly to see a musician working with such freedom and gracefulness of movement and expression.
My son was very impressed. He left the concert venue clutching a Milos CD and harbouring a determination to play as well as him. The next day he listened to the CD multiple times, and then got out his guitar to do some practice. And he carefully turned his footstool round the wrong way.
Now, if you don’t know anything about classical guitar, let me explain. The player rests their foot (usually the left) on a footstool to help hold the guitar. And it is usually positioned sloping towards the player. Milos had his footstool sloping away from him. My son wants to be just like Milos, so he turned his footstool around.
Now, it’s just a small example, but it demonstrates very clearly the transactions behind imitation.
Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. We imitate the people we admire. We want to be just like them.
Very often the things the make the imitated person great are not easily imitated. My son cannot instantly copy Milos’ work ethic, his years of practice. These things are not visible, and take time and discipline to copy. So the likelihood is that they won’t be. We copy what we can easily see, not what makes the great artist great.
What we see are the idiosyncrasies and foibles, and these aren’t what made the person great (most of the time). FM Alexander put it like this:“Most of us are aware that if a pupil in some art is sent to watch a great artist… the pupil is almost invariably more impressed by some characteristics of the artist that may be classed as faults than by his ‘better parts’.
… the characteristics may be faults which the genius of the particular artist enables him to defy. It is possible that the artist succeeds in spite of them rather than because of them.” (CCC, p.364)
Was Glen Gould a great pianist because he slumped around on a low piano stool and grunted a lot? Or was it because he worked really hard? Obviously the latter. But the visual idiosyncrasies are easier to copy. Luckily for me and my son, Milos only turns his footstool around!
We are not the same as our heroes. This is another really important factor that makes imitation dangerous, according to FM Alexander. We tend to believe that if we see a teacher or a great artist do an activity in a particular way, that it is possible for us to copy them accurately. But FM says this is a delusion. (UoS, p.418) We are not the same as our teachers – we have subtly different physiques, different experiences, different ideas and beliefs. We are different psycho-physical beings. We could not copy our teachers exactly unless we were able to copy their entire general use of themselves!
Moving beyond imitation
So how are we to proceed? If we can’t copy our teachers, what can we do?
Well, I suggest we do what FM wanted his teacher trainees to do: watch closely what he did, and look to the reasons and principles behind why he was doing what he was doing. Once we understand the reasoning behind what our teachers and coaches do, we can have a go at applying it to our own practice.
In conclusion, here are the steps to follow:
Make sure you understand clearly the goal of the activity.
Make sure you understand the reasoning behind why your teacher or coach does the activity in the way they do.
Attempt to apply this reasoning process in your own attempts at the activity.
Get feedback from your teacher or coach on how well you are doing.
Do you fear that you don’t have the commitment to change the things in your life that you feel are holding you back, whether physically (wellness), professionally, or in performance areas?
Do you ever look at people who’ve solved major difficulties in their lives or work and wonder how they did it? Do you ever feel as though they have some sort do secret special power that you just don’t have?
People sometimes feel that way when they look at FM Alexander. He was a (mostly) self-educated actor who solved the vocal problems that threatened his career, and in the process created a whole new form of body-mind work that has helped countless thousands of people all over the world. He did it by conducting a lot of observations of himself, and doing a lot of thinking and experimenting. He was, clearly, fuelled by a commitment to change.
One of my newer Alexander Technique students is a flautist who uncovered a major technical difficulty with her flute playing and spent eight months re-learning how to play her instrument. She looked at FM Alexander’s work and said, “wow, he was determined. I could never do something like that!”
But, of course, she had! She’d just spent eight months of her life doing daily training, disciplining her mind and her body so that she’d be able to overcome a technical flaw that she’d spotted in her playing. To my mind, she had shown exactly the same dedication and application that FM had done. Clearly, my student was also spurred on by a commitment to change.
The secret of FM Alexander’s work to cure his vocal problems wasn’t genius. The secret of my student’s successful relearning of her instrument wasn’t luck, nor was it good teaching (though I am sure her flute teacher is excellent). Luck will only get you so far, and it doesn’t matter how good the teacher is if the student doesn’t do the work.
The student has to do the work. To do the work, they need to have the motivation to do the work. This is what commitment to change and the process of change is all about. And what lies behind that commitment? They have the motivation because they love what they do.
Loving what you do changes everything.
My student loves playing the flute. She will try most things in order to play better.
FM Alexander loved acting. He was prepared to stand in front of a mirror watching himself for months to find a solution to his vocal problems.
I loved knitting and playing my recorder. I hated waking up with my arms hurting. I was prepared to change pretty much anything in order to play and knit with ease.
What about you? Maybe you’re wanting to solve physical issues, or move further towards wellness. Maybe you’re wanting to improve at the stuff you do. Maybe you just want to have more energy at the end of the day!
Whatever it is you want, I can guarantee this. If you truly love what you do, you can find the commitment to change whatever it is that is holding you back from enjoying it to the full. I won’t promise that the road will always be easy. But it will ultimately be truly rewarding, and well worth the travel.
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.
Stage fright is a funny beast. Because it has such a formidable physical dimension, we often fall into the trap of believing that it is primarily a physical phenomenon. But what if it isn’t? What if stage fright is primarily a thinking-based problem that is alleviated by thinking-based solutions?
Today, I want to explore how our levels of anxiety in different performance arenas are first and foremost dependent upon the decisions we make about how comfortable we are with that arena.
Malcolm Gladwell told a story in a recent New York Public Library interview about emotions, and about seeing his father in tears reading Dickens. He followed this with the tale of being taken to a movie by his father. (You can watch this whole interview via this page from the website Brain Pickings – the section I’m referring to starts at 13:35) They rarely went to movies. This one was a particularly sad picture about the Holocaust and the life of Corrie ten Boom. Everyone was crying, except Gladwell’s father. When asked why he wasn’t crying, Gladwell snr said, “It’s just fiction!”
Clearly he didn’t think that Dickens was biography, so why the thoroughly un-teary response to the biopic of ten Boom? Because he had decided to value it differently. There was something about the written word, and the written words of Dickens in particular, that held a higher value for Gladwell snr. This was a choice that he had made.
Similarly, we can make choices about what things we value and what things we fear. More than one of my students has confirmed my own experience that performing as an actor was far less terrifying than performing as a musician. As an actor, they say (as I once did), the audience see the character. They don’t see YOU, so stage fright isn’t an issue. But this is just another decision.
One of my students is an actor who specialises in improvisation. He loves it because there is a clear framework and a set of rules that lead to a successful performance. He dislikes scripted theatre because it lacks these. One of my other students loves scripted theatre because it has a clear framework and a set of rules, and dislikes improvisation because it lacks these.
Partially, of course, these people like the thing they’re most accustomed to. But more than that, they like the thing that they have decided to like and invest time in. If you decide it, improvisation can be safe. If you decide it, musical performance can be safe. If you decide it, I imagine even stand-up comedy can feel safe. The point is, it’s all a decision.
Once I decided that the audience didn’t really see me even when I was playing music, stage fright vanished. I was completely happy about going onstage. I realised that the audience didn’t care about me particularly – they wanted to hear the music first and foremost. As long as I gave my attention to the music, the audience would be happy, and so would I. And it worked.
What would happen if you decided that the performance arena you think is unsafe and uncomfortable, is actually far more safe and comfortable than you have given credit for?
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