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?
It may seem perverse, but more often than not risking failure fuels improvement. I was again reminded of this when chatting with an artist and visual arts teacher, who works in a high school with teenage students. I asked my new friend what the most common difficulty is that she experiences with her students. The answer was immediate: not going far enough.
I asked the art teacher to explain. She said that, in her experience, students are afraid of making mistakes and ruining their artwork by doing too much and wrecking all the promise of the piece they were working on. So they try to hedge their bets and stop just a little too early.
Risking failure: baking the biscuits
Why is this bad? Why should we worry if artists leave their pieces just a little on the side of unfinished – doesn’t this leave the promising beginning intact?
Well, yes. But no. It is definitely a problem. And here’s why.
By never going too far, they don’t learn where just enough is. It’s a bit like making biscuits. If you take every batch you make out of the oven when they’re still a little doughy, you don’t learn how to recognise when they’re cooked. Most of the time they’ll be edible, but they’ll never be really right. If, on the other hand, you ‘caramelise’ them*, you soon learn what they look like when they’ve gone too far!
In other words, sometimes you have to take things to the point of ‘caramelisation’. You have to go too far. That’s the way you find out where the optimal range lies. You fail in order to find out where success truly lies. If you stop at ‘slightly doughy’, you’ve set a ceiling on your ability to improve.
FM Alexander did the psycho-physical equivalent of ‘caramelisation’ many times in his efforts to discover the way to overcome his vocal problems. He discovered the three tendencies that appeared to be implicated in his vocal distress. He found which one he could directly prevent, and stopped doing it. The other two vanished as well (thereby proving his suspicion that the three tendencies were linked) and his voice improved.
Job done, you would think.
But FM wasn’t satisfied, because he knew that risking failure fuels improvement. He decided to have a go at putting his head forward, further forward in fact than it felt right to do – just to see if he could make things even better. And the results of that little experiment led to many more months of experimentation and angst. But it also led to the creation of what we now teach as the Alexander Technique.**
If FM hadn’t tried going too far, I wouldn’t be writing this blog to you today.
Yes, going too far and stuffing things up hurts. Artists hate looking at pieces they’ve overworked. I hate it when I burn my bakes. But if you don’t take that risk, you’ll never reach the potential that you were aiming for, and you won’t learn the concrete and practical things that you could do to make it possible at the next attempt.
So… Go on. Go a little too far today, and see what happens.
* I’ve watched enough cookery programmes to know that no one burns anything these days!
** You can read about it in FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion Books, p.21ff.
Are you afraid of performing? Whether it’s a concert, play, audition or after dinner speech, do you find yourself frozen up by the fear of what is to come?
Many people are afraid of the battle. To them, every performance, audition or job interview is a competition, and one that they are afraid of losing. The audience/panel are the enemy, the competitor that they must fight. And the fear of competition seems almost all consuming. Some of my students have described it this way:
Fighting the audience – fight to keep the audience engaged and with you.
Fighting the panel – battling to keep them looking at you as a real contender.
Fighting the competitor, and fighting oneself – struggling to retain the self belief to keep competing.
I want to share with you something I’ve been reading that threw a lot of light on the fear of competition issue. I’ve got two main points that I hope will set you thinking anew about it. My fondest wish is that you’ll come the the conclusion that fear of competition is a mental trick that you can escape – if you want to.
1. Fear of competition is a state of mind.
I love watching snooker, and especially love watching Ronnie O’Sullivan. I’ve often wondered what goes through a player’s mind, especially at the beginning of a tight match where the scores remain even, and one player does not gain immediate dominance over the other.
Do you think this would be stressful, or do you think it would be fun?
Many people might imagine that a player would find it stressful. But that isn’t what Ronnie O’Sullivan describes in his most recent book, Running.
I went bang! Long red. Eighty. He went bang! Long red. Eighty. I went bang! Long red. One hundred. He went bang! Seventy. And I thought, 2-2, we’re having a row here, this is good! I’m enjoying this.*
What Ronnie is describing is a joy in the heat of battle. If the other player is matching him frame for frame, he relishes it. He describes a joy in being able to hold his own and gradually overcome another player who is also playing at the height of his powers. For Ronnie, when he is at his best, the battle isn’t something to run away from. It is, rather, something to engage in and enjoy.
Fear of competition is a state of mind, a “trifling habit of thought” (FM Alexander’s words there**) that at some point we have taken on. But it is just a state of mind, and states of mind can be changed.
2. It isn’t really a battle.
The second point is that most performances, most presentations, most auditions and job interviews even, are not battles. They are not a competitive sport, and the audience/interview panel are not your competitors. They are not your enemy. You are not fighting them.
The audience, at heart, wants to be entertained.
The business audience, at heart, wants to get out of the room alive. If they enjoy their time, they are thrilled.
The audition panel just wants to cast the role. They want you to be the one.
The interview panel just wants you to be the right candidate.
They aren’t your competitors. Unless you’re in a particularly extreme set of circumstances, they’re on your side. So what is there to stop you just getting on and enjoying being with them?
*Ronnie O’Sullivan (with Simon Hattenstone), Running, Orion, 2013, p.71.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT edition, p.52.
Do you struggle with self criticism as a performer? Me too. I’m telling this little story about my own self criticism, partly so that you can all feel a little better by having a laugh at me, and partly to make a point about why we don’t need to do it in the first place!
Just recently my group Pink Noise played a concert at a small church in Somerset. We finished our programme with a lovely arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion. I play the lead line. This is a fairly accurate rendition of my thoughts as I play the first phrase.
Will the high D sound? Please God, don’t let it crack!
Brilliant! But it sounds so thin. Argh!
Argh! Relax those fingers!
The note’s so boring. Finger vibrato!
Argh! Not enough finger vibrato!
Argh! Too much finger vibrato!
Argh! Finger vibrato isn’t even enough!
Running out of air – gotta breathe…
I hope I didn’t sound like an asthmatic walrus…
I never get the articulation right there…
Phew – made it!
And that’s just the first phrase!
It feels like I never do the piece justice, that I never manage to play it as cleanly and smoothly as it deserves. Frankly, I always feel like I struggle with it, and wonder why the others in the group don’t take the part away from me.
That’s how it feels. And that’s how I’d see it, if one of our group hadn’t made a video recording of the performance. I finally got round to watching it. And what did I find?
The awful truth… isn’t that bad
Actually, it’s okay. I was pleasantly surprised. There are things to work on for us as an ensemble (we haven’t performed this piece very often yet), but it holds up. And my lead line isn’t nearly as bad as it sounded in my head. I hesitate to say it, but it’s really quite decent.
FM Alexander warned us all decades ago that our feelings aren’t a reliable guide to anything much. Anyone who has had an Alexander Technique lesson will have seen or experienced a session in which they are convinced they’re about to fall over backwards, only to be told they’re standing perfectly straight. Or that when they think they’re turning their head, they’re actually turning at their waist. Or that when they think they’re bending their knees, they’re just not! What we think we’re doing is very often not what the outside world sees.
What I love about watching videos of my performances is that I get to see a view from outside my own head. I get to listen, maybe not to a studio quality recording, but at least to something that is outside of me and the processes I’m engaged in to make the sound. I get to experience what the audience might experience.
The lessons for today?
Teachers aren’t perfect. Thank goodness. That’s why we understand the struggles our students go through.
If you’re a performer, or are having to give some sort of speech or presentation, find a way to get objective feedback. Video yourself. Get a person you trust to watch you. Do what Alexander did and look at yourself in the mirror, if you can bear to. Find some means where you can evaluate your own performance, and preferably AFTER you’ve done it, not DURING. During, you should be far too busy doing it to evaluate anything.
And finally, if you’re having a thoughtfest of self criticism like the one I wrote out, be kind to yourself. Notice that you’re doing it, then get back to the job of playing/performing. Evaluation comes later.
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