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Noticing the good: improvement through generating a string of successful experiences

Create a string of successful experiences - a bit like bunting flags!When you practice or perform, do you notice good things you’ve done, or just the things that didn’t go well?

It may not surprise you to know that, in my experience, classical musicians are THE WORST at noticing good things about their performance. They can tell me about intonation problems, about missed position shifts, cracked notes, fluffed semi quavers. Rarely can they tell me about the beautiful phrasing, the breath control, the semi quavers that went by without a hitch. In fact, if I mention the good things I heard, most of the time they didn’t even notice them. It is as if they never even happened!

A lot of musical training is centred around noticing and correcting the things that didn’t work. And don’t get me wrong, it makes complete sense to notice our mistakes and to attempt to correct them. But if we notice only the things that went badly, we risk setting ourselves up for a hard time, because we will actually be conspiring with the way our brains operate to work against ourselves.

Why your brain prefers bad things

First of all, our brains are, evolutionarily speaking, really well designed for noticing things that are potentially bad or dangerous. The amygdala – one of the most primitive parts of the brain – acts a bit like a security system to keep us away from danger.[1] Our attentional filter also contains some pretty impressive neuro-chemical systems that are designed to break through whatever we are doing to keep us out of danger. You might have experienced this if you’ve ever been driving on the motorway, and only realised you’d let your mind wander after your brain has jerked you back from drifting into the next lane![2]

Because these systems are neuro-chemically based, and because the brain is a plastic (changeable) thing, by paying more attention to the things that worry us (like intonation problems or fluffed semiquavers) we can actually cause our attentional systems and our amygdala to fire more immediately at errors. We can, in effect, train ourselves to be more anxious!

Memory encoding bear traps

Additionally, when we practice a piece of music, for example, we are trying to create stronger memory traces in our brains so that the information can be retrieved more easily.[3] But what is encoded depends on what we most pay attention to and how strong the emotional connection was (either positive or negative).[4] My memories of the ultrasound department of my local hospital, for example, are primarily of the location of the toilets. I was pregnant and having my 20 week scan, and I had been told to drink water so the scan would be more effective. Increased water consumption and a squashed bladder coloured my perceptions and my memories of the space!

In a similar way, it seems likely that our memories of a piece of music will be coloured by what we paid attention to while we learned it. If all we thought about was the stuff that didn’t work or seemed hard, then that is most likely what we will continue to remember.

Learning to notice good things: creating a string of successful experiences

So the key, then, is to dampen down the effect of the amygdala, and to take advantage of our brain’s abilities in encoding memories by giving it the right stuff to remember. We want to encode positive experiences, not negative ones. And FM Alexander has something to say about how to do this.

A few weeks ago, my lovely colleague Karen Evans and I discussed that one of our favourite sections of FM Alexander’s books is his comment that “confidence is born of success, not of failure.”[5] It looks like a simple phrase – because it is. It looks like a truism, too. Obviously, we will be more confident about something if we have success at it. But it really is worth unpacking the significance of Alexander’s comment.

What he is telling us is that, if we want to have confidence in the tasks we perform, we need to have had a string of successful experiences. This string of successful experiences doesn’t just make us feel good about ourselves; it gives us a solid foundation of understanding that, because we have completed the task successfully in the past, if we follow the same process, we will have similar success the next time. Our mission, then, is to generate that string of successful experiences.

And we won’t be able to even begin generating that string of successful experiences if we aren’t even able to notice the things that went well. I’ll talk next week about how we begin to structure our practice sessions so that we can generate a string of successful experiences. This week, though, I want to set you one simple task. Each time you practice, can you write down three things that went well? Can you begin each practice session with the intention to notice the good things about your performance, as well as the bad?

Give it a go, and I’ll be back next week with how we can utilise our new-found skills to construct a confidence-building string of successful experiences.

 

[1] Bella Merlin, Facing the Fear, London, Nick Hern Books, 2016, p.20.

[2] Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind, London, Penguin, 2015, p.47.

[3] Barbara Oakley, Mindshift, New York, Tarcher Perigee, 2017, p.34.

[4] Levitin, p.52.

[5] FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, IRDEAT, p.384.

Image by galzpacha on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Change your language, change everything: a neat way to improve your practice approach

change your language and feel more freeHave you ever noticed that the way you describe something changes the way you approach it or experience it? I’ve had that experience recently with my running. Long term readers of my blog will know I dabble in running; I’ve done the local 10k event a couple of times. This year I’ve decided to challenge myself and try out the half marathon instead. Prior to the decision, I was ‘going out for a run’ a couple of times a week. But giving myself that goal also encouraged me to change my language. Now I ‘go training’.

The change in terminology changed my approach to the running. I now run more regularly (generally 4 times a week), and with a greater commitment and intensity. I find that I am more prepared to push myself to try a little harder to get up the steep hills in my park, and I’m more committed to keeping going. As a result, I am now able to run further and faster. By changing my language use, I changed my attitude and created an improvement in my fitness.

Change your language; change your flexibility

If you change your language, you change the way you conceptualise the thing you are describing. If you change the concept, you can improve the use.

Regularly with beginning students, I find that they have very little range of motion in their necks – they can’t move their head very far upwards or downwards. When I ask what their neck is for, these students most often reply, ‘to hold my head on’. When I explain the structure of their neck (7 cervical vertebrae, lots of muscles, etc.), and ask them again what they think their neck might be for, they generally change their description to ‘moving my head’. And suddenly the range of motion of their neck frees up markedly!

But this isn’t always true: a person can say that they are, for example, happy with their body shape but not believe it, and not act as if it is true. A person can say that they are writing a novel, and even decide to describe themselves as a writer, yet fail to to do any writing. So when does the change of description create the change in concept, and when does it not?

It’s a phenomenon that FM Alexander understood. Back in 1910 he stated that “A changed point of view is the royal road to reformation.”[1] It’s one of my all-time favourite sections of Alexander’s work, because he clearly talks about the power behind the changed point of view – the reasoning that goes with it. I didn’t just change my language use when I started to ‘go training’; I had a goal and motivation behind the language. My students don’t just change the range of motion of their necks; they gain an understanding of the structure of their neck which leads them to alter their description.

So how can we use this in our music practice?

Change your language; change the music

Dr Noa Kageyama in his most recent blog discussed something that I’ve been working on with my music students for a while now – the importance of verbalisation. Dr Kageyama recalled Leon Fleischer asking musicians to clearly explain what their musical intent was for a particular passage they were playing. “He explained that it’s easy to think that you know what you want in your head, but if you can’t describe it in words, it’s an indication that you don’t actually have a clear enough idea about what it is that you really want.”[2]

My students have found the same. One violin student, for example, was having trouble with the intonation and phrasing on a piece by Grieg. After I asked him to explain exactly what he was trying to achieve, his playing of the passage improved substantially. I had encouraged my violin student to ‘own’ the concept behind the musical passage by encouraging him to put it into words.

So if you are struggling with a particular passage, try explaining to yourself (or to a friend) what it is that you’re trying to achieve. Or if you find you have labelled a particular passage ‘difficult’, try to explain to yourself what is difficult about the passage, and then how the passage fits into the structure of what is around it. By doing this, you’ll have changed (or at least improved) your concept of the passage in question. And if you change your language, you open yourself up to new opportunities for discovery and improvement

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.44.

[2] http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/a-technique-for-finding-your-car-keys-faster-that-might-also-be-applicable-in-the-practice-room/

Image by dan, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Stuck in a musical rut? Try this simple tactic.

Are you in a musical rut? Do you ever find yourself drifting through the same pieces each time you practice? Do you struggle to find the motivation to try something new or difficult?

It can be very tricky to keep momentum, particularly as a solo performer, and especially as an amateur musician. Faced with the choice between doing hard work learning (potentially challenging) new material, or spending time refining something we already know, many of us will choose the latter option. It saves us the pain and trouble of learning the new piece, and we have the instant gratification of improvement. We feel like we have achieved something, even if we secretly know that we haven’t really achieved very much at all.

There are good reasons why we avoid the harder task. Engineering professor and learning expert Barbara Oakley reminds us that “we procrastinate about things that make us feel uncomfortable.”[1] In her book A Mind for Numbers she recounts a medical imaging study of mathphobes. When the math phobic subjects thought about doing maths problems, the pain centres of their brains lit up. But when they actually started working on the problems, the pain went away. In other words, the anticipation of doing the thing we find uncomfortable is actually painful! But if we get on and do the task, the pain goes away and we are open to the rewards of our labours.

This ‘inertia of mind’ is nothing new: FM Alexander wrote about it in 1910. He reminded us that most people live very narrow lives, doing and thinking the same things every day. But he also reassured his readers that once this inertia of mind is overcome, “it is astonishing how easily [the brain] may be directed.”[2]

So what should we do to get out of our musical rut? My suggestion to you today is to try setting a goal or a deadline for yourself – something that is public, time limited, and just a little bit outside your comfort zone.

Doing the slightly scary…

Setting a slightly scary new goal (like a new performance, or one with a new partner, or with brand new music) has the following benefits:

Deadlines – a performance gives you a deadline to work to
Accountability – other people will know about what you’re doing, so you can’t procrastinate
Novelty – humans like things that are new and shiny. New and shiny goals are more attractive, so we are more likely to spend time on them.
Uncertainty – a bit of uncertainty is good. It’s good to occasionally find oneself doing things that might not work – as FM said, “I could do no harm by making the experiment…”[3]

It’s a tactic I am currently using myself. Long term readers of my blog will know I dabble in running; I’ve done the local 10k event a couple of times. This year I’ve decided to challenge myself and try out the half marathon instead. It has had an immediate impact upon the consistency and intensity of my training runs, even though the event in in late September, and as I write it is only early May!

Similarly, my son isn’t particularly ready for his cello exam. But we decided to book for an earlier date rather than waiting a couple of months, as he and I agreed that he will be more motivated by the earlier deadline. We both think that he’ll just get bored if he has the extra time!

But only slightly scary!

But make sure that you put enough safety features in place so that you aren’t paralysed by fear. For example, when I was recovering from stage fright, an important step was playing a solo piece in performance. I pushed myself by picking a stupidly difficult piece (the first movement of the Bach Partita? Please!), but I made sure that I picked a small venue where it wouldn’t matter if I messed up, and I had my consort friends around for support. I also gave myself plenty of time to prepare.

So if you’re stuck in a musical rut, see if you can find a way to create a goal for yourself: a new piece, a new performance, or a new collaboration. Make your new goal interesting, time sensitive if possible, and just a little bit scary. And don’t forget: the anticipation will be painful, but once you get stuck in, the discomfort goes away. Then you just have fun.

[1] Oakley, B., A Mind for Numbers, New York, Penguin, 2014, pp84-5.
[2] Alexander, FM., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, IRDEAT, p.67.
[3] Alexander FM., The Use of the Self, IRDEAT, p.413.

Why trusting decisions is vital for your development

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Do you have problems following through, trusting decisions that you’ve made? Perhaps you work hard at finding the right answer, but then have trouble trusting your choices when it comes to the crunch?

I think all of us struggle with this at some point. One of my students found trusting decisions a challenge, but recently made a breakthrough. When I first met him, he struggled with following through on what he’d planned. In essays he wouldn’t quite write the sentence that would nail his argument. When playing he would choose in performance to not quite do everything that way he’d rehearsed.

He reminded me of – well, me actually. As a young theatre student,  lecturers constantly told me that my acting just didn’t hit the mark. My playing choices were good, but it just looked like I didn’t really commit to what I’d decided was right. I wasn’t trusting decisions that I’d made, and to an audience it looked like I was holding back.

FM Alexander had the same sort of issue when he was trying to solve his vocal problems. He had worked out what he was doing wrong, had experimented with preventing it (with some success), and had worked out a better protocol so he could use his voice more effectively. There was only one problem: when he went to speak, he went back to using the old protocol and using his vocal mechanisms poorly. Why?

Being right vs feeling comfortable

FM realised that he was looking to old habitual feeling pathways to work out if he was doing the new (unfamiliar) thing effectively. It hadn’t occurred to him that doing the new thing might not feel comfortable. And when faced with the choice of feeling uncomfortable doing the new thing or feeling comfy doing the old ineffective thing, he chose the latter.*

It was only when he realised he had to trust in his reasoning processes totally that FM really made progress. He said:

my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my ‘end’ must be a genuine trust, not a half-trust needing the assurance of feeling right as well.**

This was exactly the problem I’d had as a student actor. I made decisions about what was the right way to play the role at any given moment, but if I had a choice between trusting decisions I’d made and feeling comfortable, I chose feeling comfortable every time.

My student, having studied this section of Alexander’s text, had the opportunity to change his response. He began trusting his decision-making process, and had a lot of success. He got through to the final of a major college music competition, and played beautifully. A couple of days later, I asked him about the experience. He was thrilled, because he’d had a plan for how to handle the final, and he’d followed through on every part of it. He had trusted his decisions.

Can you think of an area where you need to trust in the decisions you’ve made, and just follow through?

*FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, pp.43-44.
** ibid, p.45.
Image courtesy of aechan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Big questions: can the right chair prevent back pain?

sitting comfortably

Can using the right chair prevent back pain?

If I was given a pound for every time I’ve been asked this question (or a variant), I’d be fairly comfortably off by now. In my experience as an Alexander Technique teacher, one of the most common niggling worries for people from all walks of life is sitting. They have to do a lot of it (computers, cars, offices, orchestra rehearsals…) and are convinced that they aren’t doing it very well. Sometimes they even experience discomfort, or downright pain from sitting. If they just bought the right chair, would the problem go away?

Is this you? Are you wondering the same thing? Could buying the right chair prevent back pain?

I can’t give you a straight yes or no answer, unfortunately, because it’s a more complex issue than it might seem on the surface. So I’m going to give you two reasons why I say no, buying the new chair won’t help. But I also give you one reason why yes, thinking about the chair really will help you.

No the first: injury and disease

The first and most important thing to say is that if you have a diagnosed injury or a disease that causes your back pain, just buying a new chair won’t solve the issue. It might give you some relief, and some Alexander Technique lessons could help you move more efficiently to mitigate the effects of the condition. But a chair can’t cure you, and only a chair salesperson in need of a good commission would allow you to think so. Can the right chair prevent back pain? No, not if your problem is illness or injury.

But, I hear you say, I’m not injured. Should I go out and buy a nice new chair? Here’s why the answer is still no…

No the second: it isn’t the chair, it’s the way you sit in it!

It isn’t just me who gets asked frequently about furniture. FM Alexander had the exact same problem. And my answer to the question is the same as his: furniture isn’t the issue. It’s the way we use it that causes us problems. If someone has sat poorly (using too much muscular effort in the wrong places) on a cheap office chair for many months or years, is the purchase of a fancy new chair suddenly going to change her sitting habits? Does someone with poor dietary habits change his entire processes around food just because he purchased a slightly tight-fitting new suit? Probably not.

This is why FM Alexander was so concerned that we should have the mental tools to adapt ourselves to our environment. This particular passage I’m about to quote is primarily about child education, but if it’s good enough for kids, it’s probably true for the adults too:

What we need to to is not to educate our school furniture, but to educate our children. Give a child the ability to adapt himself within reasonable limits to his environment, and he will not suffer discomfort, not develop bad physical habits, whatever chair or form you give him to sit upon.*

My aim as an Alexander Technique teacher is to give you the tools so that you are able to organise yourself to be comfortable on ANY chair. If that interests you, then maybe you should talk to me about having some lessons.

But sometimes you do need to look at the furniture, too…

Did you see the caveat in FM’s statement? He says that the child should be able to adapt within reasonable limits. In other words, there may be times and places where you will need to take careful note of the chair or office set-up. After all, if you’re going to be using your desk for eight hours every day, it is clearly common sense to make sure that you are giving yourself the best conditions you can, within constraints of budget, time and common sense. Humans are adaptable, but that doesn’t mean we should live with something that is just not fit for purpose.

One of my friends once found herself with neck ache, even though she had a lovely new desk set-up at work. I asked her to tell me about it. It was a corner desk, she said, with lots of lovely room for all her books and notes right in front of her. The monitor was to her left, and the keyboard to her right.

I’ll say that again. Her monitor was to her left, and her keyboard to her right.

No wonder she was getting neck ache! When she changed her keyboard to the other side, the neck ache went away.

The moral of the story: there is no such thing as the perfect chair. The right chair won’t prevent discomfort; learning how to sit easily and efficiently is a much better solution. But if you are like my friend, you may want to take a good look at your office set-up too!

* FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the IRDEAT ed.,  p.92.
Image of Ai WeiWei’s Marble Chair (outside the Royal Academy) by Jennifer Mackerras

Big questions: who makes the positive changes happen?

making positive changes in Alexander Technique lessons involves fun!

Are positive changes teacher-driven?

For beginning students looking at an Alexander Technique lesson, it can look a lot like the teacher is doing all the work. The teacher does something with their hands, and apparently makes massive positive changes in the student. Even though there is very often a fair amount of talking going on, it can look a lot like most of the work is being done using hands-on techniques BY the teacher TO the student. The balance of power seems very much to be with the teacher.

But I really want to challenge you to reconsider this notion. I want you to consider the possibility that the positive changes that occur in the course of Alexander Technique lessons are in fact student-powered.

Positive changes are student-powered!

As I discussed last week, what I am doing with my hands during an Alexander Technique lesson is NOT sculpting the student according to my ideas of what is right and good. I don’t decide what would be good for my student, and then mould it! Rather, I am making it increasingly hard for the student to STOP sculpting themselves according to their ideas of what is good. My job is to help the student question whether their ideas are good and useful to them, or whether they would be better served by letting some of their ideas go.*

This means that the balance of power doesn’t lie with me as a teacher at all. If one of my students decides that they would rather hang on to their physical tension (and the ideas that lie behind it), then there is nothing that I can do to stop them. On more than one occasion I have worked with students who have found their reasons for their physical tension so compelling that they have refused to give them up, even though their justifications resulted in physical discomfort.

Happily, because most people don’t have such a life-or-death attachment to their ideas, they are happy – sooner or later – to make the shift in thinking that shifts its physical manifestation. The lure of the benefits of positive change is too inviting to ignore.

In addition, the fact that the student is the one with the power means that they can make positive changes without the teacher being involved. Just this past week one of my students failed to make it to class, but read the recap email that I sent to all the class participants. She thought so carefully about that email during the week that, by the time she came back to class, she had made definite positive changes and was experiencing less discomfort in her daily activities.

If the student is the one with the power, and if a student can make progress without the direct involvement of a teacher, then what is to stop you from improving right now? As an Alexander Technique teacher, one of my most important roles is to give my students a space and a framework for examining what they do and how they do it. But you don’t need me in the room with you!**

What is it that you’re doing, and how are you going about it? What one thing strikes you as something that you could do less, or even not at all? Will you take the challenge to drive your own positive changes?

* Alexander spoke of teaching as “placing facts, for and against, before the child, in such a way as to appeal to his reasoning faculties…” I am of the opinion that this sounds like a great teaching tool and applicable to other age groups too! See FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance, Irdeat ed., p.88.
** Though, of course, I’d love to work with you in person, too. 🙂
Image by Kevin Leighton.

Big questions: Why do teachers of Alexander Technique use hands?

In Alexander Technique, teachers’  hands are for… what?!

Alexander Technique hands-on work

When starting to learn the Alexander Technique hands – specifically, how the teacher uses their hands in a lesson interaction- are one of the biggest points of question and confusion for a new student. What on earth is the teacher doing with their hands when they are working with a student?

Sometimes a student will say that it feels like I am pushing or pulling them to a different shape. If it’s a group class, this frequently gets a laugh, because the group can see that there is virtually no physical effort being expended on my part as the teacher. And when I ask the student whether I really am pushing or pulling them, they have to answer no.

Sometimes a student will ask, ‘Are you feeling the things that the student is doing wrong?’ Well, sort of. I can feel muscular tensions within the student when I work with them, but am I specifically looking for that? Not really.

So if I’m not ‘pulling’ them into shape, and I’m not specifically looking for the things they’re doing wrong, what exactly am I doing with my hands in a lesson?

Bringing a reasoning intelligence…

It all comes back to what we think the Alexander Technique is for. I think of it as a method for learning how to bring a reasoning intelligence to our movement.* We learn to how to organise our naturally flexible structures in a way best suited for what we want to achieve. We are learning how to use our amazing bodies without excess or unnecessary effort.

So when I use Alexander Technique hands on techniques in a lesson, I am attempting to help the student notice the unnecessary ideas or tensions they are inflicting upon themselves, thus making it increasingly difficult for them to keep doing them!

For example, a student might only want to move their head on their neck up or down in a very limited range (which I tested by using Alexander Technique hands on methods). This brings the limited range of motion to their attention. When I ask them what their neck is for, they might reply, ‘to help me see’. So if I give them a reason to see things outside of their usual range of motion – like an imagined trip to the Sistine Chapel- they may well move their necks much more freely when I next use my hands.

It doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes there is more chat involved, and sometimes less. Very occasionally there is none involved at all! But in all cases I am using my hands as a tool, to make it increasingly difficult for the student to stick with the physical tension that, through sheer force of will, they are enacting upon their body.

In Alexander Technique hands aren’t the only way to learn.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to experience Alexander Technique hands-on lessons in order to effect lasting and positive change. The classic example of this? FM Alexander himself. He made lasting positive change to his own vocal problems, and didn’t have a qualified teacher around to help him out! We can always do what he did:

  • keep watching ourselves to see if we are doing anything in the way we are going about our activities that is causing our problems;
  • reasoning out what we actually NEED to do for any given activity;
  • endeavouring to do what we’ve reasoned out.

Pick an activity to work on, follow these steps, and see if it helps. Let me know how it goes!

 

* I’m paraphrasing Frank Pierce Jones. See Freedom to Change, 3rd ed., Mouritz 1997, p.2.
Photograph of Jen and student by Gordon Plant.

Big questions: ‘How do I keep it?’

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Do I keep it, or let it go?

I’ve taught a fair few introductory Alexander Technique lessons recently. They tend to go like this:

  • Student comes and sits. They tell me about what is bothering them.
  • I ask some pertinent questions, and do some Alexander ‘hands-on’ work.
  • Student feels better. Their face brightens.
  • I ask if they have any questions. They look at me earnestly, and ask this:
  • “It feels great. But how do I keep it?”

The dark underbelly of ‘how do I keep it?’

The question on the surface seems like a fair one. The student has had a good experience, and wants it to continue. This is completely understandable, especially if the student has been troubled by discomfort, and as a result of the lesson experience the discomfort has gone.
But ‘how do I keep it?’ is a question with a dark underbelly, and the easiest way of teasing this out is with this simple question: “What would happen if you didn’t keep it?”

The classic answer to this question is, “I’d revert to how I was before.” The subtext of this answer is this: I have to work at it for my body to feel like it is working well, and if I stop keeping it up, it will work poorly. In other words, the dark underbelly of wanting to ‘keep it’ is the hidden belief that our bodies work poorly unless we make them do otherwise.

Put that baldly, it is a fairly depressing thing to believe, isn’t it? And yet many of us, whether we realise it or not, work as if that’s the truth.*

But what if it isn’t?

The alternative

You see, if our bodies are essentially poorly functioning, then we’re always going to have to work hard to keep them working well. But if the reverse is true – if our bodies are basically fine and designed to function well – then we wouldn’t have to do anything to keep them going. All we would need to do is to get out of our own way, cut the extraneous and unhelpful, and learn how to use our amazing bodies to best advantage.

In the words of actor Bruce Lee:

It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.

 

* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the IRDEAT ed., 382-3.
Photo by Jennifer Mackerras

Overthinking – how it impedes your performance, and how to stop

Overthinking lightbulb

Overthinking – what it isn’t

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.[1] 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.”[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.

[1] FM Alexander, Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Irdeat ed., p.17
[2] S Pressfield, Do the Work, Kindle ed., loc 256.
[3] Ronnie O’Sullivan, Ronnie, Orion 2003, p.158. He’s giving his opinion of Steve Davis.
[4] FM Alexander, MSI, p.60.
Image by bplanet from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Will I change my personality? Alexander Technique and psychology

 

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…

definition of Alexander Technique

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!

Alexander Technique psychology described using image of John and Marsha

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.