It’s a common thing for Alexander Technique students, whether novice or old hand, to have the experience that doing an activity in a new way feels better, but also somehow… wrong.
The old way of sitting wasn’t comfortable. The new way is. But it just doesn’t feel right, a student might say to me.
FM Alexander wrote about this in my all-time favourite chapter from his books, called ‘Incorrect Conception’. His example was a teacher asking a student to bend at the knees. The student does it in their old habitual way. The teacher helps them to bend their knees in a new, more mechanically efficient way. At this point, FM says, for the student bending the knees becomes
…to all intents and purposes, a new act, bringing with it a new feeling. This time the act is not what he is accustomed to, and so it feels wrong to him.*
In a lesson today I likened this to that moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy looks around at the technicolor world of Oz and says “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.” Dorothy was a bit unhappy in Kansas - it was grey, life was hard, and people were giving hera tough time. But at least it was familiar.
Our bodies are a bit like that. We move in certain ways, ways that are familiar and normal. We may not always be comfortable, but at least everything feels normal and where it should be and, well, somehow right.
It is only when the joy of the feeling right becomes outweighed by the discomfort that people typically come to an Alexander teacher. They are taught how to conceive of and carry out activities in new ways. But no matter how comfortable the new way is, it isn’t going to have the same sense of familiarity as the old way. It isn’t going to feel right. Not at first, anyway.
The challenge for any Alexander Technique student is to recognise that they’re not in Kansas any more. There’s a new world, and it’s brightly coloured. There’s no map, and sometimes it might not seem the safest or most enjoyable place in the world. But it isn’t the same old same old. It has the thrill of adventure.
Are you willing to step out into the new? Are you ready to risk feeling wrong?
* FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Complete Edition, p.297.
Image by Matthew Mackerras
In his second book, FM Alexander quoted a student who said “I am always coming up against things that I know I can do, and yet when it comes to the point, I can’t do them.” And dismissing it as an attack of ‘nerves’ doesn’t really do the problem justice, because it doesn’t help us discover the root cause of the stress, and therefore an effective solution.
Uncomfortably for teachers and students, Alexander firmly lays the blame at the way we learn. He says that we “practise on the wrong lines, so that our successful experiences are few and our unsuccessful experiences many.” *
Reading this passage put me in mind of a recent blog post that mirrored my own experience as a musician and performer.
Piano teacher Dan Severino wrote a blog post about his experience of evaluating his success in trying to teach students how to practice. He asked some of his students to practice just as if they were at home, so he could give them tips and pointers on how to improve.
They didn’t use any of his tips or practice drills. Severino says: “To my surprise most students practiced the same way. They would play one piece and then go on to the next piece until they played all their pieces. A couple of the students would play through the piece a couple times; but always the same way — from beginning to end.”
That could be a description of me as a kid. When I was a young recorder player, I didn’t know how to practice. I would play a piece either until the end or until I got to a tricky bit and made a mistake. I would possibly repeat the tricky bit a few times - rarely more slowly, rarely improving - and then just play the whole piece again.
It was bad practice. It didn’t help me to build up confidence from successful experiences. It taught me instead where the scary bits were in the pieces I played, so that I would spend all my performance time dreading their approach. Small wonder I failed to get them right!
So how can we avoid ‘choking’? Well, according to Alexander, one key element is practice. By changing the way we practice, we can build up for ourselves a succession of small successes that give us confidence. But to do that, we can’t just play the piece through and feel like we’re done. Here are some ideas I’ve been trying recently:
How many more different ideas or tips do you have that have helped you change the way you practice? Has it helped you feel more confident on stage? Tell me about it in the comments!
* FM Alexnder, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat edition, p.340.
A couple of weeks ago in my post on why belly breathing is bunkum, I suggested that students often misinterpret their teachers. The teacher says something apparently innocent, like “breathe down into your belly” and the student comes away from the lesson convinced that their lungs are down near their navel!
Today, using the wisdom of Stephen Sondheim and FM Alexander, I want to explain why we need to watch what we say to our students, and to offer some advice on how to get around the difficulty.
Be careful what you say
Children will listen…
What can you say that no matter how slight
Won’t be misunderstood?
FM Alexander talks about this, too. He says that “in every case, the pupil’s conception of what his teacher is trying to convey to him by words will be in accordance with his (the pupil’s) psycho-physical make-up… these fixed ideas must inevitably limit his capacity for… receiving the new ideas as the teacher is trying to convey them to him.”*
In other words, the big problem with students is that they aren’t the same as us. They don’t know the same stuff.they don’t think the same way. They have different backgrounds from us. And they have different ideas and beliefs from us, and their view of the world is filtered through those ideas. Not ours.
And that means that when I give a recorder pupil an instruction, for example, they don’t hear me. They hear their version of me. Which may bear no relation to me or what I actually said at all.
Sounds pretty grim, doesn’t it? So how do we teach and make ourselves understood?
If you are a teacher, whether of music or acting or languages - or even of the Alexander Technique - what is your experience of working with students? And if you are a student, how do you navigate your way through your teacher’s attempts to teach you?
*FM Alexander, Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual in the Irdeat Edition, p.293.
Image from FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Dedicated readers of this blog will recall that last year I wrote a post about my worries around going a bit nuts in the darkest part of the year. Well, I thought I should write a bit about how I am getting on.
You see, this year I haven’t suffered nearly as much from the chronic sleepiness or craziness that I have in previous years. And I think the reason why is straight out of my day job as an Alexander Technique teacher. I had a change in my point of view, and that has shifted everything for the better.
Like millions of others, for Christmas 2010 I watched the Doctor Who Christmas Special, that year entitled A Christmas Carol. It starred Michael Gambon as a Scrooge-like figure called Kazran Sardick, and began with a shot panning over a snowy Victorian-style streetscape covered by Kazran’s words in voiceover from Gambon:
“On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs. As if to say, ‘Well done, everyone! We’re halfway out of the dark.’ “
This simple line of dialogue caught my attention. I had never thought about the Winter Solstice like that before. I knew all about it, of course. I knew on a scientific level that it was the date when the sun’s maximum elevation in the sky is at its lowest, and therefore the hours of daylight are at their shortest. I knew that many cultures and religions celebrated this day. But it had never occurred to me that they were celebrating being halfway out of the dark.
Put simply, I had not linked together my scientific knowledge of solstices and my cultural knowledge. Nor had I linked in my personal experience of days getting shorter before the solstice, and then longer afterwards.
FM Alexander believed that the linking up of knowledge was vitally important. He said, “Knowledge is of little use in itself; it is the linking up of what we know with that which comes to us daily in the shape of new ideas and new experiences which is of value.”
Doctor Who script writer Steven Moffat gave me a new experience of the solstice, and it was the spur to me to link up all my bits of knowledge. On the day of the solstice, I had a little private celebration.
My experience of this winter is profoundly different to previous years. I have not gone crazy. Though I’m still struggling a bit to get up in the mornings, it isn’t as draining to my energy or my mood as in previous years. More interestingly, since the solstice I have been acutely conscious of the days getting longer. Every few days I rejoice in how much more daylight there is. I feel more in contact with nature.
The lesson to take from this? If you have a problem that feels intractable:
FM was right. Linking up knowledge is a good thing.