Are you good at decision making, or are you plagued by those modern evils, Fear of Commitment and Fear of Missing Out? This post is about why decision making is a fundamental skill within Alexander Technique, and how you can do it better.
Decision making fail – leaning on the fence
A week or so ago I had the great pleasure of taking my family along to the ExCeL conference centre in London to see the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Celebration. It was a massive exhibition – tons of displays of costumes and props, lots of stalls selling things, and lots of demonstrations and theatre shows in a number of small spaces.
Many of these small spaces were defined within the large exhibition space by little fences. Inside each fence there were chairs and a stage. The fence was small, and though you could easily see over the top, staying outside to watch the demonstrations wasn’t exactly comfortable. The fence was rickety and wobbled every time it was touched, and the crowds bustled past constantly.
But that didn’t stop people. Every time I walked past one of these little theatre spaces, only about a third of the chairs inside was filled, but the fence was lined entirely by people leaning uncertainly against the rickety barrier and watching from the outside.
They didn’t want to commit. If you went inside you got a (more or less) comfy seat, but it also made it harder to leave if you didn’t like the show. And who was to say that there might not be a better show starting in the next space in just a few minutes?
So most people decided to hedge their bets, and spend an entire 40 minute show jammed against a wobbly barrier while the crowds brushed past.
Decision making and reasoning
Now, I admit that I’m not the world’s best decision maker. But I do know that standing around in a crowded passageway for 40 minutes just to ‘keep my options open’ is what FM Alexander would disparagingly call ‘unreasoned’. It stems from a fear of making the wrong choice, and a lingering worry that we might be missing out on something ‘better’. But really, does it really matter if there’s a better show than the one we’re watching, especially if it will take use half of the show time to push through the crowds to get to it?
If FM Alexander had worried about making the wrong choice about what experiments to make while he was trying to find the solution to his vocal troubles, we wouldn’t have the Alexander Technique today. FM made tons of mistakes. He went up conceptual blind alleys, tried wrong things, and even realised at one point that “all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.” (p.419)
But he never let his errors stop him. Indeed, more than once in Evolution of a Technique (the chapter in which he describes the creation of the work we now call the Alexander Technique), he says clearly that he profited from the experiences he had from his mistakenness – the experience helped him to form new ideas and new experiments to try. (see p.418, p.424)
Decision making – which side of the fence are you on?
Ultimately, there are very few decisions where the outcome is really that crucial. Most things can be changed, or improved upon. Most decisions will not be completely bad or wrong – we can learn from most things.
Therefore, don’t sit (or lean) on the fence.
Try that new restaurant or cafe.
Try that new watercolour brush technique.
Try playing that phrase with a different fingering pattern.
Try a different route home.
In the vast majority of circumstances, even if the choice turns out to be less than optimal, it won’t matter that much. You might end up with a lesser cup of coffee, or it might take you five minutes longer to get home. But if you don’t try, you might end up missing the best cup of coffee you ever tasted.
If you lean on the fence for too long, you’ll just end up with sore feet.
Do you want to improve posture (or anything else, for that matter), but feel a bit stuck as to how to go about it? Today’s post may have some answers…
I’ve been a bit silent for the past few weeks on the blogging front. Apologies. I have been very busy researching and writing lectures for a new course I am teaching at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, this time to the music degree students. It is a course that is part experiential Alexander Technique, and part lecture-based presentation of FM Alexander’s ‘Evolution of a Technique.’
It has been a real learning curve for me, never mind my students. I have been studying Alexander’s text in a depth that I haven’t ever quite managed before. It has been revelatory.
What I have discovered is a whole new perspective on the journey that all students face on the road from threatened passion on to improvement and ease. Marjory Barlow, amongst others, recounts that FM often used to say, “You can do what I do, if you will do what I did.” But what exactly did FM Alexander do?
The points below are some of what I believe are the essential markers of FM’s journey from a threatened acting career to an improved voice and a whole new vocation. I think we could all benefit greatly if we took some of these points on board.
“I must try and find out for myself.”
FM suffered vocal problems, so he did the obvious thing and went to the doctor. He tried all that was available to sort out any medical problem that may have existed. This is really important. If there is a medical issue, you need to get it sorted out by a medical person. But FM suspected that the reason why the medical solutions didn’t help was because his troubles didn’t have a medical origin. He suspected he was doing something while speaking that caused his problem. So he decided to find out.
The learning point:
If you’ve got issues that you suspect aren’t medical, be thorough and check out the medical, but also think about finding out if you’re right. And no one can do this for you. An Alexander Technique teacher is trained to help and offer principles to help you on the path. But ultimately, you have to do the work yourself.
“I could do no harm by making an experiment.”
FM knew his problem occurred while reciting, so he watched himself in a mirror, first in ordinary speaking and then when reciting, in order to see what differences there may be between the two activities. And he didn’t just do it once. He did it many times.
This is classic scientific method: look at the evidence, make a guess about why things are the way they are, construct a way of testing if you’re right, and then run the test several times.
The learning point:
Think about your issue. Can you construct a way of testing its extent or causes?
“I found myself in a maze. For where was I to begin?”
There are many occasions, especially in the first half of Evolution of a Technique, where FM Alexander has made so many observations, has so many different things to test and try, so much on his plate, that it is almost overwhelming. So what does he do? He picks a place to start, and keeps experimenting.
The learning point:
When you’re bogged down and don’t know what to do first, sometimes the best thing to do is just pick a spot, and start there. You’ll soon find out if there was somewhere better!
“…all my efforts up till now to improve the use of myself in reciting had been misdirected.”
FM had vocal problems, and tried to trace backwards to find out what was causing them. He found some physical movement patterns of his head in relation with first his neck, then his whole body, which seemed to be the cause. So he tried to stop doing them, and even to do something else. And while he had some small degree of success, he found he wasn’t able to do all the things he wanted to do. FM found himself down a cul de sac.
The learning point:
That happens to all of us. We try something, and it doesn’t seem to work. Failure is normal and to be expected.
“Discouraged as I was, however, I refused to believe that the problem was hopeless.”
If there’s one quality (other than passion) that characterises FM Alexander, it is that he was tenacious. He experienced massive setbacks in his quest to solve his vocal issues, yet he didn’t allow his disappointment to get the better of him. Seth Godin recently wrote a blog about the difference between being tenacious and persistent. Telemarketers, says Seth, are persistent, because they keep pestering. Seth continues:
“Tenacity is using new data to make new decisions to find new pathways to find new ways to achieve a goal when the old ways didn’t work.”
This, for me, typifies FM Alexander. He kept looking for new data, made new decisions, tried new pathways, and discovered amazing things as a result.
The learning point:
What can you do today to be tenacious in pursuit of your goal?
These are just 5 things that I have discovered during my journey with FM Alexander in Evolution of a Technique, all from the first half of the chapter. There’s plenty more in the next half!
Which brings me to a question…
My RWCMD students have been getting enormous benefit out of studying FM’s journey in detail – even though the majority (contrary to what I’d been told to expect) had never even heard of Alexander Technique before entering my classroom. So I’m wondering… how many more people would really enjoy an in-depth class looking at Evolution of a Technique?
I’m thinking of making a class that does just that: a study of Evolution of a Technique. Course notes, discussion time, plenty of time for questions, and held both in person here in Bristol, and online via Skype.
Would you be interested in a course like that? If so, leave a comment, or send me an email and let me know. I honestly have no idea if there’s any interest out there for a course like this, so PLEASE, if you’re interested, contact me and let me know.
Does perfect posture for piano – or flute, or singing, or trumpet, or cycling, or anything else, for that matter – exist? This is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, as I’ve recently started teaching Alexander Technique to a new class of music students.
Perfect posture for the piano – or perfect posture for whatever instrument my student studies – is usually high on a student’s agenda at the beginning of a course of lessons with me. If they’re in my teaching room to learn Alexander Technique, they’ve probably booked the appointment because they’re having trouble playing to the standard they’d like. And a lot of the time they’ve been told, often by a teacher or coach, that their posture is poor and needs fixing.
So they’re in my teaching room. Wanting to learn the secret of achieving perfect posture.
I’ve been reading a book called PianoNotes by noted pianist and critic Charles Rosen, and he very much writes what I have experienced in my practice – that looking for an externally verifiable perfect posture is to look at the problem completely the wrong way around.* Let’s investigate.
If there was a perfect posture, then it would have to fit everyone. I other words, any pianist would have to sit the same way, use the same hand technique, and so on. And for this to work for everyone, all pianists would need to be roughly the same size physically and have the same hand shape.
But we know that this isn’t true. Rachmaninov and Richter had famously large hands. By all accounts, Ashkenazy has quite small hands. Casadesus had famously stubby fingers. Is it reasonable for us to expect that all these players should use the same fingering technique and the same hand position? And what about seating position? Should we expect all sizes of people to sit in the same way?
If there was indeed such a thing as a perfect hand position or seating position, we may well be left with the uncomfortable conclusion that those people who weren’t physically suited to it shouldn’t play piano. Hm.
And what about perfect seating posture at the keyboard? If there were such a thing, then there would also be a myriad ways to sit which were not perfect. But what if, in order to get the effect the composer demanded, you had to sit or move in such a way that you left the ‘perfect’ position? That would be a tricky dilemma!
Perfect posture punctured!
Put simply, my students are having trouble maintaining ‘perfect posture’ as they play, because it doesn’t exist. There is no one right way, because there is no one right person. There are so many different shapes and sizes of performer, and so many different demands placed upon them by different pieces of music, that to try to make firm and fixed rules is doomed to failure.
And I think my students know this in their heart of hearts. But they still want fixed rules to follow, because it is somehow more comforting to think that there is a perfect answer out there, and if they just have the secret of it, they’ll never have to think or worry about playing again.
FM knew all about this very human desire for rules we can follow unthinkingly, which is why even in his very first book he was at pains to point out that instructions that helped one student could be troublesome or even detrimental to another. That’s why he didn’t give lists of instructions on how to sit or stand.**
So in the end, we need to work out for ourselves what is likely to be best for our bodies, whether we are playing musical instruments or just chopping the veggies. But how are we to do this? Are there any guidelines that can help us?
Look to the anatomy, and learn from basic principles of how we’re structured. For example, a 90 degree angle between forearm and upper arm is always going to be beneficial to aim for, because it’s where you arm has maximum torque (turning power) and thus the most potential and freedom to move.
Work out what is required of you. For example, if you’re playing piano and come across a section of music that the composer intends to be loud and forceful, make note of this.
Check out the externals. Is the piano stool high, or low? Is the veggie knife sharp? Is the music stand high or low?
Once you know all the contributing elements, you can design your own optimum solution for the circumstances you’re in right now. Just remember that today’s optimum might be different to tomorrow’s!
*Charles Rosen, Piano Notes, London, Penguin, 2004, pp.1-3.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT ed., pp.155-157.
Have you ever wondered how the truly great artists manage to create their masterpieces? Have you ever listened to Yo-Yo Ma play cello, or watched Roger Federer play tennis, or Fred Astaire dance, and considered how they got that good? Well, practice is a big part of it, absolutely. But I want to suggest that the great artists have all realised the power of a simple process: they understood that you can improve performance by doing less.
Novelist Rolf Dobelli recounts a story of the Pope asking Michelangelo, “Tell me the secret of your genius. How have you created the statue of David, the masterpiece of all masterpieces?” Michelangelo’s reply is remarkable: “It’s simple. I removed everything that is not David.”*
This story, for me, cuts to the heart of what the Alexander Technique is all about, because it speaks to the principle of economy of effort. Michelangelo had an idea of what he wanted his David to be, and then he cut away everything that wasn’t a part of his vision. Simple. Elegant.
Economy of effort to improve performance
Back in 1910, FM Alexander realised that people had a problem with economy of effort. He wrote: “Unfortunately, all conscious effort exerted in attempts at physical actions causes in the great majority of the people of today such tension of the muscular system concerned as to lead to exaggeration rather than eradication of the defects already present.” **
Bluntly, when FM looked around at the world, he thought that people weren’t having the success they craved because they were doing too much. And a lot of us are STILL doing too much, or going about things the wrong way. Or even doing too much WHILE going about things the wrong way! And then we worry, because we aren’t achieving the results we expected.
If that sound crazy, well, it’s because it is crazy. But it’s also very human. We’ve learned from a very early age that doing more is the socially expected course of action. Want to succeed? Do more. Even if you’re not sure you’re doing the right thing in the first place. I’m sure you, like me, have had the experience of playing music, or acting, or hitting a tennis ball, wanting to improve performance, and actually making things worse.
To improve performance by doing less. If you think you’re doing too much – whether physically or mentally, try doing a little less. The game I often give my students is the 50% less game – ‘can you do this with 50% less effort?’
And when you take away the unnecessary, what are you left with? I ran across this quote from Alexander teacher Marjorie Barstow. It very much speaks to this idea of taking away the unnecessary. She is quoted as saying to a student, “All you have is the absence of what you had.”
Michelangelo’s absence was David.
So how do you achieve an absence? Here are my tips.
Keys to Doing Less.
Have a good idea of what you want to achieve. Steven Covey talks about things being created twice. Before the physical creation there is a mental creation. The better your mental creation, the better your idea of where you want to end up.
Know your resources. I can’t give a quote or a footnote, but I’m guessing that Michelangelo chose both his materials and his tools carefully, picking ones that were appropriate to his intentions. We need to do that, too. This may mean going out and buying the right sort of shoes if we plan to start running. It may mean finding out where our hip joints are.
Watchfulness. I’m willing to bet that Michelangelo didn’t wield his hammer and chisel mindlessly! He would have been incredibly watchful, making sure that he didn’t cut away more than he needed to, and that he cut away in the correct places.
No preconceptions about the effort required. This may sound like I’m contradicting tip number 1. But I’m not. Having a goal is one thing, but keeping an open mind about how little effort you may need to achieve that goal is quite another.
Yes, it takes a little bit of work. But will it take any more than all the unnecessary effort we’ve been channelling into our activities? Probably not. And if we are successful, we may well be amazed at how easily we can take away ‘all that is not David.’
* Rolf Dobelli, The Art of Thinking Clearly, Sceptre Books, p.304.
** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT edition, p.62.
Photograph by Richard Simpson, stock.xchng
When preparing to perform, do you view the performance as process, or as an end to be gained?
It has struck me recently that it is very tempting to think of an upcoming performance in the following way:
The performance is on x date
I shall work on the process of learning the music/lines, experimenting with interpretation, and exploring the music… until the date of x.
On x date, I will perform the piece.
In other words, I think it’s very easy for actors and musicians to go very happily through the process of rehearsing, learning, experimenting and exploring – until the performance. Then it can be every so tempting to believe that the process that led you to that point is over. ‘I mean, I’m performing now, I don’t have time for all that exploration stuff!’
Speaking for myself, I know that I have often fallen into the trap of thinking of the actual performance as an end point. I have been very happy to go through a process involving thinking and learning about the music/script during rehearsals, but with the view that I am doing so in order to have a completed product to put in front of the audience at opening night.
But what if the performance isn’t an end point or anything to be gained/achieved?
What if it is just another part of the process?
In fact, what if the performance is the same process?
When I teach actors or singers, I am often asked to help out with improving a monologue or a solo; often the performer says they are having trouble with nerves or concentration. For example, if I am helping a young actor, I will watch them perform a scene, and often proceed as part of my lesson design to ask them some basic questions: Who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Where are you going? Who are you talking to? After answering these questions, frequently the scene improves greatly without the need for any Alexander Technique hands-on work. But why?
Simple. By asking the questions, I have reminded the actor that performance is process. I have reminded them of the work that they did in rehearsal. To answer my questions, the actor has to recall both the content and the quality of thought and concentration that was needed when the answers were first created. The answers are, in effect, recreated. And so when the actor performs the scene, they have placed themselves in the creative process that enables them to work moment by moment, line by line.
This was exactly the problem that FM Alexander discovered when he was trying to find a solution to his vocal problems. He had formulated a new plan for how to use his mechanisms (his body!) in speaking, and had practiced and practiced. But he realised that, at the critical moment of going to speak, he threw it away and reverted to his older manner of use. It was only when FM found a way of continuing to think about the process he had designed up to and through the critical moment of beginning to speak, that he began to experience sustained improvement.*
So how do we as performers achieve similar sustained improvement?
Remember that the performance isn’t the end point. It’s just another stage along a journey. If you’re an actor, the likelihood is that you’ll be performing the same words again the following night. If you’re a musician, you’ll have that piece of music in your repertoire for a long time. Play the long game.
To play the long game, set goals for yourself that aren’t related to that particular performance. For example, for my next performance with my group Pink Noise, because we are playing a piece we know fairly well, my goal is to listen more to my colleagues and match intonations more closely.
If you’re an actor, keep working on those basic questions: who are you? What are you doing? What do you want? Keep looking at the script. Sometimes it will surprise you, and you’ll find something that you’ve never noticed before!
Most importantly, keep remembering that the performance is no end point. When we view performance as process, we stay in tune with our words and music, we stay in the present moment, and we will be so busy that we’ll have no time for nerves! Try it, and let me know how it turns out.
* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.428.
Can you conquer stage fright by changing point of view? Or are the physical sensations of nervousness always going to get to you in the end? This is my story of how I came to realise that between physical sensations and thought patterns, thought patterns are the more destructive agent when it comes to performance anxiety.
When I was young, everyone was certain I was going to be a musician. I played flute and recorder. Recorder was my true love of the two instruments (and still is). I played in the school recorder ensembles and bands. I was always off to some rehearsal or another. I was pretty good – in spite of the fact that I never learned how to practice effectively – and was keen to go to a music school in the Netherlands to further my recorder career.*
So why didn’t I go? How did I end up where I am today?
I couldn’t cope with the nerves. Particularly before solos, my heart would race, my hands and knees would shake, my blood would pump so loudly in my ears that I could barely hear. But worse than that were the fears of getting things wrong, of disappointing people. I spent much of my time before every performance in the grip of a forecast of doom. I was convinced that my performance had to be note perfect, and that anything less was a failure.
I quit. There’s only so long that anyone can take that sort of pressure. At that time, in that place, I couldn’t conquer stage fright. It conquered me.
When I say I quit, I need to be more precise. I quit music. I didn’t quit performing. When I went to university, in addition to all the sensible courses, I enrolled in Theatre Studies for a bit of fun. It became my passion.
I loved the academic approach to theatre, but if I’m honest, I loved the acting and directing the most. And I never suffered stage fright. In fact, I didn’t really experience negative nervousness at all. Not once.
Did I feel my heart go faster before I went onstage? Yup. If anything, it went even faster. I can remember waiting backstage before one performance and wondering what the fastest heartrate recorded might be, as I thought mine at that moment probably rivalled it!
Did my hands and my knees shake? Yes. Definitely yes. When I was in Samuel Beckett’s Play, in which the three actors are encased in urns, mine could be seen vibrating!
But it never bothered me. I was having too much fun.
Now I look back and I can see that, logically, there is little difference between standing in front of an audience wearing a fake beard and carrying a sword, to standing in front of an audience with a recorder mouthpiece between my lips. But at the time, the rules and stories I told myself about each activity were very different.
Music = getting it right, being perfect, being in control, trying to block out the audience (who were ‘against’ me and judging me), getting things wrong and beating myself up for failing
Theatre = experimenting, having fun, having a sort of conversation/interplay with the audience, getting stuff wrong and trying to find a nifty way out of trouble
Some of the ideas within these categories may have been picked up from other people and places, but I was the one who held them together and believed them. I created paradigms that made one activity (music) a kind of living hell, and the other (theatre) a paradise of playtime. If FM Alexander had been around to see me, he would have said that he had “no hesitation in stating that the pupil’s fixed ideas and conceptions are a major part of [her] difficulties.” **
One of the unexpected joys of studying the Alexander Technique for me was that the “mental rigidity” (FM’s words) that had fossilised my ideas about music was broken up, and my fear of playing or singing in front of audiences conquered.***
So if you want to conquer stage fright, have you considered whether your ideas and attitudes about the activity of performing might be a significant part of your difficulties? Is there a similar activity that causes you no problems at all? What is the rule that makes the difference?
And it isn’t just stage fright that can be helped by looking at hidden rules and preconceptions. Go hunting, and you may be surprised what ideas you have that rule the way you operate/behave in everyday activities.
Yes, we can conquer stage fright. And sometimes looking at how we think is the first step on the path.
* The Netherlands is one of the major centres of recorder teaching, and early music in general.
** FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT complete edition, p.294.
*** FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT edition, p.123.
Photo of Jen in a fake beard as Face in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, 1993. Photo by Rex Bunn.
Is stage fright normal, instinctive, and something you are born with? Or is it a learned, rules-based set of behaviours? And if this is so, can we learn new rules, so that practice overcomes stage fright?
This is an argument that occupies a lot of my working hours, because many of my students would prefer to believe that stage fright is, if not wholly, then certainly almost entirely an instinctive thing that one is born with. I, on the other hand, have come to believe that stage fright is learned. Though some people may be more predisposed than others, stage fright is largely a rules-based set of behaviours.
Why do I believe this? Because I keep encountering evidence that seems to suggest that rules play a determining role in stage fright. This week, for example, while driving through town I was lucky enough to catch a radio broadcast of one of the BBC Proms, in which the Camerata Nordica played a gorgeous selection of British music by Britten, Tippett, and Walton. The most fascinating section of the concert for me (from a professional perspective) was when a viola player from the Camerata Nordica, Catherine Bullock, came forward to play the solo part in a late Britten work called Lachrymae. She was interviewed by BBC presenter Clemency Burton-Hill prior to performing, and was described as “inching towards the front of the stage.”
This is a portion of the short interview that followed:
Burton-Hill: What’s it like to step out of the orchestra and come to the front of the stage, as it were? Bullock: Well obviously it’s quite scary. [laughs nervously] I’m an orchestral musician by trade, I’m not used to this.*
I was so astonished I had to stop the car! Ms Bullock is an accomplished, experienced musician. Her performance of the work following the interview was one of great depth and beauty. She has been onstage as a performer many, many times. And yet she was very nervous. Why?
Ms Bullock gives us the answer: she is an orchestral musician by trade. She is accustomed to being part of an ensemble, and so even though it is still performing, because she is used to doing it, it doesn’t bother her unduly. Being a soloist, on the other hand, is not something she is accustomed to, and it therefore is a cause for concern and worry. Put simply, she has a belief (borne of experience) that ensemble playing is normal, but solo playing is not. She has not had sufficient experience to describe herself as a practiced soloist.
I see this frequently with my students when they are faced with performing in a sphere they are not used to. A person used to teaching classes of teenagers is nervous about giving an after-dinner speech. An accomplished speaker is terrified of his first choir performance. An actor who specialises in improv experiences nerves doing a scripted play. I’m sure you have your own version of this.
So how do we deal with it? How do we ensure our nerves and our beliefs about what is normal don’t get the better of us?
Accept that nerves are normal. When we do something out of our comfort zone, nerves are normal. That’s our primitive lizard brain preparing us to fight or flee. Typically, if we just accept that some nerves will happen, the extent and duration of the nerves aren’t as long.
Knowledge is power. Knowing that we are being tripped up because we are doing something a little different is helpful. But knowing that, logically, it isn’t that different a situation to our comfort zone also helps.
Practice overcomes stage fright. How did we end up with a comfort zone, whether it be speaking, teaching, or improv? Typically, by just getting on and doing it! The first time we try anything, we are likely to feel fear. The more familiar we are with an activity, and the more times we have success, the less stressful we are likely to find it.
So if you are about to do something new, like performing your first solo, find a nice small friendly audience to play to first. They’ll enjoy it, and you’ll get some valuable experience under your belt. FM Alexander advised teachers of his work to set up for students a series of situations or a “a process which ensures that the pupil’s experiences will be, with rare exceptions, satisfactory experiences, which make for confidence.”**
Doing activities outside of our usual sphere is likely to be unsettling, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelmingly frightening. If we take care of ourselves, we can rise to the challenge with enthusiasm, and succeed magnificently.
Do you reliably do what you think you are doing? Have you ever had the experience of doing an activity (like singing or performing) and discovering afterwards that you’re not doing it the way you thought you were?
It’s a disconcerting experience. The last time I experienced it most forcibly, I was playing recorder and preparing for a concert with my group Pink Noise. We were playing a rather lovely piece called La Lusingnola by Merula, and we wanted a sound at the beginning that was not legato, but not spiky either – more a sort of portato articulation. So we played and rehearsed, and thought we were doing rather well.
As part of my rehearsing process, I began using my iPad to tape my practice sessions. I taped the Merula, and then listened back to the recording. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I wasn’t playing portato at all! What sounded to me like portato as I played was coming across to an audience far more like staccato. It was too spiky.
I wasn’t doing what I thought I was doing.
As an Alexander Technique teacher, I see a lot of actors and singers with a similar issue. They have a lesson with me because when they open their mouths to speak or sing, they feel tension in the back of their neck that troubles them and affects their voices. Typically, I will ask them to sing a little bit for me, or at least do everything that they would normally do to begin singing and then just not sing.
And what do I most often see?
They aren’t doing what they think they are doing.
They are not opening their mouths to sing.
They are leaving their jaw still and ‘opening their heads’ to sing instead! In other words, rather than just let the jaw drop and leave the head alone, my students are trying to leave the jaw completely still (using muscular tension) and then use muscles at the back of the head to pull it back.
In both cases the mouth is open, but the result is very different.
small number of muscles used
relationship of head to body is left alone
breathing mechanisms left free to do their job
muscles activated to hold jaw in place – bad for singing
muscles activated in back of neck – more muscular tension than needed
relationship of head to body altered for the worse
combination of various tensions likely to upset breathing and singing mechanisms
If ‘opening the head’ is so unhelpful, why do we do it? How is it that this happens?
According to FM Alexander, often we have never spent time thinking about HOW we go about most of our activities – we just do them. We get into the habit of performing a certain act in a certain way, and we experience a certain feeling in connection with it which we recognize as “right.” (CCCI, p.296.) If we even think about how we are going about an activity, we tend to assume that we are doing exactly what we think we are doing – that intention and results will be perfectly aligned.
So even if we notice that we aren’t quite having the success we want, or worse, we experience discomfort during the activity (like a tight neck while singing), we keep going because we don’t associate it with our manner of going about our activities.
When we go to an Alexander Technique lesson, or see the video that shows us what we are actually doing, we realise that, in FM’s words, “what we have hitherto recognized as “right” is wrong.” (CCCI, p.296.) We have to change our conception of the activity. We have to make a decision to do something different.
Next time you are singing, or playing flute, or even doing the dishes, just remember to take the time to stop and question: are you really doing what you think you are doing? Are you sure? And what will you change to make it even better?
Do you have problems with one of the holy grails of personal productivity: how to stop overworking? Do you find yourself exhausted by your drive to keep checking things off the To Do list?
I’ll answer just one more email… I’ll write just one more paragraph… I’ll play that phrase just once more – just to be certain of it…
At the recent Dance and Somatic Practices conference in Coventry, Jane Toms and I presented a workshop in which we discussed how Alexander Technique can be a great tool for circumventing the stories and beliefs we all hold that can prevent us from achieving our potential. I mentioned a couple of the self-limiting (and self-harming) beliefs that caused me to begin studying Alexander’s work.
My tendency to try to fit in ‘just one more thing’ wasn’t one of them. But I’ve realised that it should have been.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve grown up exposed to the belief that hard work is the key to success. I knew I had taken this belief to heart, but only recently have I begun to see how it affects my day-to-day life. I don’t like to cook only tonight’s dinner. I like to start tomorrow’s lunch, too.
I will try to fit in just one more email. Just one more dish on the rack. Just one more load of washing. Just one more student in the schedule.
Yes, this can be productive. But it can also land me in trouble. I can take on too many jobs, or end up doing too many things at once. It’s exhausting.
So I made the decision to stop overworking, and to start treating myself more kindly. But it’s hard. It is as though I have a ‘default setting’ that demands overwork, and any stimulus can set my default setting into overdrive.
But it is not for nothing that FM’s last major piece of writing was entitled ‘Knowing How to Stop’, because stopping is a major key in his work.* When trying to solve his career-threatening voice troubles, FM realised that he needed to “make the experience of receiving a stimulus to speak and of refusing to do anything immediately in response.” **
In other words, FM received a stimulus to speak but made the experience of refusing to respond in his usual way. This gave him time to choose not just how to respond, but whether to respond at all.
And this has been my challenge: to receive the stimulus – another email, another phonecall – and to refuse to spring instantly into action. This gives me time to choose what I actually want to do – stop overworking. It gives me time to think. And when I take this time, I have the chance to make the decision anew to choose the path that I have decided is best for my purpose, rather than relying on my default programming.
This is the way we change habitual behaviour – by receiving a stimulus, not instantly using our default programming, but instead making a decision to put into effect the process that we have decided is better.
For me, this is the key to how to stop overworking. It means pausing before fitting in ‘just one more’ of anything. What about you?
*Michael Bloch, FM: The Life of Frederick Matthias Alexander, Kindle ed., p.186.
** FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Irdeat ed., p.424.
Image courtesy of stock images, FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Bodies tell tales. It’s true. The way you move tells others a tale – or at least gives them vital clues – as to how you are feeling about what you are doing, or how you are thinking. And if that’s true when you’re getting the groceries, it’s even more apparent when you’re doing something that you may find stressful, like speaking in public.
Have you ever been at a presentation or some other event where you had to watch someone else give a speech or perform? Were they nervous? How did you know?
Of course, you didn’t really know. Not with certainty (unless you asked them afterwards). But how they moved and spoke would have given you vital clues. Perhaps they had raised shoulders or a tight neck. Perhaps they were hesitant about eye contact, or spoke softly.
The simple fact of the matter is that how you move gives us clues as to what you think and how you feel. Sometimes we’ll read those clues badly. Sometimes we might get them downright wrong. But most people guess pretty well, and do so most of the time. Bodies tell tales. And we know this. That’s why it bothers us when we think we don’t ‘come across’ as well as we hope – we want to look good, but we just don’t know where or how to start moving better.
I was at a conference over the weekend, co-presenting a workshop with my wonderful colleague Jane Toms. I was giving a demonstration lesson to one of the participants, who told me she had been having problems with soreness in her neck. When I worked with her, her neck certainly didn’t move very freely.
What did this tell me? It suggested to me that she had an idea that wasn’t helping her – an idea about her neck and its function. So I asked her what her neck was for. And she said, “for holding my head on.” And this answer made perfect sense of what she was doing physically – she was using muscles in her neck to ‘hold her head on’.
This workshop participant had a belief about what necks are for, and that belief was written in her body. Bodies tell tales. So if you don’t like the tale your body is telling, what do you do? Where do you begin with how to start moving better?
Change the story. Change the belief. Yes, I know that sounds simplistic. But it works. Here are the key points to remember to start the process:
Behind every movement is an idea or story.
If you change the idea, you change the movement.
Don’t bother going hunting for the origin of the idea that led to the poor movement. It’s far easier just to decide on the details of the new idea, and then work on doing that instead of the old idea.
A good starting question for the creation of the new idea is, “What do I need to do to…[insert activity here]”
This is a positive act. We aren’t burying our heads in the sand. We aren’t hoping no one will notice. And we aren’t going on a hunt through the past to discover the roots of an idea that didn’t help us in the first place. We’re doing what will help us: finding a new idea. If we do this sincerely and consistently, we will know how to start moving better. We will change the way we move. We will change the way others read us. We will change our stories from the ‘same old’ into something better. And that’s got to be a worthwhile challenge.
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