I love thinking. I’m wholeheartedly with FM Alexander in his belief that modern society suffers from a dearth of rational thought, and that in the mind of humanity “lies [our] ability to resist, to conquer and finally to govern the circumstance” of our lives. I think that the Alexander Technique provides a stunning framework for helping us to improve the way we think and, as a result, the way we move.
I’m also pretty convinced that most of us ‘think’ too darn much – the wrong sorts of thought, and in the wrong quantities. For example, in his book Do The Work writer Steven Pressfield identifies a type of junk thinking which clouds our thoughts and prevents us from following through on the process that will help us finish our creative projects. He calls it chatter.
“when I say “Don’t think,” what I mean is: don’t listen to the chatter. Pay no attention to those rambling, disjointed images and notions that drift across the movie screen of your mind.”
This type of thinking is destructive, but it isn’t the brand of problematic thinking that I want to focus on today. Instead, I want to warn you of the dangers of what I want to call ‘overthinking’. What I’m referring to is a brand of thinking that I see in good, conscientious students across many fields: music, Alexander Technique, writing, sport. It looks a bit like this:
Overthinking – case studies
The student who thinks so much about the details of going from sitting to standing that they are almost incapable of moving;
Recorder player so intent on making sure that every finger lands in the right place at the right time in a semi-quaver passage that they can’t play it fast enough and the passage falls into an untidy heap;
The championship-winning snooker player who works so hard going ‘back to basics’ on his cueing technique that he ends up arriving at every tournament with a different cue action.
Overthinking is not a beginner fault. If you’re a beginner tennis player, you’re probably going to need to think carefully about the protocol for each shot that you play! But once you reach a certain standard of play, and you’re in the middle of a match, you probably need to start relying on the hard work you’ve done thinking about such things in your practice sessions. You have other things that need your conscious control and reasoning powers!
FM Alexander gave the example of a student who came to him wanting to improve his breathing. The student was teachable and ready to apply himself, and soon learned how to make a better use of his breathing mechanisms. FM continued:
Now it would be absurd to suppose that thereafter this person should in his waking moments deliberately apprehend each separate working of his lungs, any more than we should expect the busy manager of affairs constantly to supervise the routine of his well-ordered staff. He has acquired conscious control of that working, it is true, but once that control has been mastered, the actual movements that follow are given in charge of the “subconscious self” although always on the understanding that a counter order may be given at any moment if necessary.
Note that last line: a counter order may be given at any moment, if it is considered necessary. That’s the difference between habitual movement and leaving the details up to the ‘subordinate controls of the body’. If we have done the work and really thought about how we want to carry out our activity, we can rest on it for as long as we think it useful or necessary. When it isn’t, we can send out different orders. We are still in control.
So do the work. Enjoy the work. And then allow yourself to reap the benefits of it.
 FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat ed., p.17
 S Pressfield, Do the Work, Kindle ed., loc 256.
 Ronnie O’Sullivan, Ronnie, Orion 2003, p.158. He’s giving his opinion of Steve Davis.
 FM Alexander, MSI, p.60.
Image by bplanet from FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Occasionally I get asked questions by students that touch on the relationship between Alexander Technique, psychology, and the possibility of altering their essential selves. The questions can be summarised as follows:
Do we have an essential self?
Can we change that essential self through the work we do in Alexander Technique lessons?
If we can do this, will we all end up the same – perfectly functioning Alexandroids who think and move very similarly?
Or will we suffer mini personality crises and become different people altogether?
I can’t really speak to the first question: I have no idea if there is such a thing as an essential something that makes me ‘me’ and you ‘you’. But I do know that there is a very clear link between Alexander Technique, psychology, and physical movement.
Alexander Technique psychology? Try psycho-physical…
In the Interactive Teaching Method, where I trained to teach Alexander’s work, we define the Alexander Technique as the study of thinking in relation to movement. Broadly speaking, in lessons my students learn that what and how we think determines the way we move. This is true both in specific tasks and in more general movement patterns. And if we change what and how we think, the way we move cannot fail to change too. The Alexander Technique is a toolkit that can, to paraphrase FM Alexander, help us create/discover/reveal a good manner of use of ourselves that will exert a continuous influence for good upon our general functioning.*
Alexander also says that we think and act “in accordance with the peculiarities of our particular psycho-physical make-up.” ** When he says this, I don’t think he uses the word ‘peculiarities’ pejoratively. I think that some of our peculiarities might be beneficial, or at least neutral.
But some of our peculiarities are not benign, or will appear so but have consequences that are harmful to us. Alexander believed that our misdirected activities are the result of incorrect conceptions, and that the Alexander Technique teacher’s job is to convince a student to give up the erroneous conceptions and instead use something more useful to guide us.^ Nowhere that I know of does Alexander require us to give up beneficial peculiarities (though he does ask us to hold our ideas lightly and have open minds).^^
Alexander Technique psychology: Alexandroids, breakdowns, or something else?
That’s a whole lot of words, but how do they help us tease out our questions? Does the Alexander Technique have the power to change our personalities? Will we turn into drones or, worse, emotional wrecks?
I’m currently thinking of it like this. John is a circle. Marsha is a triangle.^^^ They both have peculiarities in their psycho-physical make-up: I mean, John is circular and Marsha is a triangle!
But it goes a bit deeper than that. John has bits of him that aren’t completely circle-like. Marsha is troubled by the bits of her that are more round than triangular. These are peculiarities too, but they are ones that get in the way of their true nature. John can’t enjoy his full circleness until he loses the edges. Marsha can’t achieve her potential as a triangle until she has a pointy top. So they both come along to Alexander Technique lessons to learn how to make the changes that will help them fulfil their dreams.
In the course of lessons, Marsha might decide that she was wrong about her triangle-ness. She might realise she was actually meant to be a trapezium. This would be a bigger change to her psycho-physical make-up, to be sure.
Some changes to our psych-physical nature are big, like realising we are a trapezium and not a triangle after all. Some are smaller changes, like taking the bumps out of the circle. But the principal thing that the changes have in common is this: they are changes that work towards an improving manner of use of ourselves. The end goal of the Alexander Technique is not to make us all the same. Rather, it is to give us the tools to become most wholly and uniquely ourselves.
*FM Alexander, Universal Constant in Living in IRDEAT ed., p.524.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT ed., p.304.
^ ibid., p.293.
^^ FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed., p. 57.
^^^ HT Stan Freberg.
How to practice Alexander Technique is a question high on the list of any beginning student. What should I do? Are there exercises I can do? How long should I be thinking about it each day?
Today I want to demystify the concept of how to practice. Let’s look at how a musician might go about it, and see what ideas we can draw out of the musician’s experience of how to practice.
Imagine a small group music lesson with three young students. It doesn’t matter what instrument; we’ll imagine it’s violin. How do they get better? By practice! But each of them has a different approach to how to practice, and they aren’t all effective.
One goes to the lesson, then goes home and puts his violin in his cupboard. He doesn’t think about it again until just before the next lesson. He then does an hour or two of panicked practice.
The next student practices every day for about an hour. He runs through his pieces all the way through every time. If he makes a mistake, he stops and goes back to the beginning of the piece. At lessons, he never seems to have fixed the places the teacher helped him with in the previous lesson.
The final student practices most days, some days for half an hour, some days only for a few minutes. He’ll pick a piece, play it through to remember which bits are sounding dodgy, and then work on one dodgy bit. When he’s fixed it, he puts his violin away and finds something else to do.
Which student improves fastest?
Which student are you?
How to practice is about quality.
Quality of practice, not quantity, is the key. It doesn’t matter how many times you do an activity (like play a piece of music) if you’re doing it wrongly. And consistency of practice is very important. There’s a growing body of evidence behind what already seemed like common sense: that we retain information better when we work on it regularly.*
The other element that FM Alexander would add to the mix is what sportsmen call mental practice. When he was trying to solve the vocal troubles that threatened his career, FM would practice his new protocols for movement very many times “without attempting to do them.” This ensured that when he did attempt to carry them out, he had a good knowledge of the process he wanted to follow.**
How to practice – the steps.
Find a time that suits.
Find an activity that suits.
Organise yourself to practice mindfully – actually thinking about what you are doing. If you can, pick for yourself a small, achievable goal to aim for.
Find time to think about how to do the activity when you aren’t doing it.
Do it for a few minutes.
If you reach your mini-goal, have a little celebration.
And – this is optional, but recommended – let someone know what it is you’re working on, so that they can ask you about it. Accountability really helps.
That’s the Activate You plan for how to practice Alexander Technique. Or, indeed, just about anything. Want to give it a try? Email me and let me know what you’re working on, and I’ll give you any help I can – even if it’s just sending an occasional message to make sure you’re still working!
And don’t forget to have fun!
*I recommend Barbara Oakley’s book A Mind for Numbers (Penguin 2014) for a detailed, lively and very practical description of the research and how to use the findings to improve one’s ability to learn.
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.