At the core of study in any modality and in any demographic, is a principle I call Progressive Complexity. It is the method by which we can start with any degree of incompetence and progressively acquire skill. This one principle is the foundation for my teaching practice in Alexander Technique, and in piano tuition. Whether it is realised by the pupil or not, an inability to engage the full potential of Progressive Complexity is what leads students to seek support of a teacher.
When one sets out to learn, there is a specific outcome in mind. It may be the attainment of skill for its own sake, or to achieve a certain goal. This gives us motivation and direction to our study. (See earlier post on goal setting.)
Education is about getting pupils from their current state of skill, to a higher level of skill and independent competency. The latter is paired with the goal we have in mind when we begin any course of study or undertake any training.
Elsewhere in this blog I talk about the problems associated with going straight for that goal - of trying to achieve a specific result at any cost. I’ve proposed the antidote to such problem is to form a goal that includes a quality of ease and function - thus giving context for attention to coordination throughout the process of attaining the goal.
F.M. Alexander, the founder of The Technique, used the term means-whereby to describe a process oriented solution, over what he called end-gaining - the ‘goal at any cost’ attitude. Working with the means-whereby approach one is obliged to persistently prioritise coordination, since a good coordination is going to more satisfactorily fulfil the outcome of the task within the framework of preserving ease and function.
Students generally arrive at their first Alexander Technique lesson having tried desperately to attain a certain skill, or a desired ease. Someone who has the ability to make the leap from their current state to the desired state has no need of a teacher, so it is natural that consistently students present to me stumped as to how they can improve on their current unsatisfactory condition.
Repeated failure - an opportunity
When some skill is beyond capability, repeated attempts to attain it will result in repeated failure, which will be discouraging, and ingrain patterns of ineffective use. Using a principle of Progressive Complexity, one acknowledges the limitations which are present and begins to reduce the complexity of the challenge until it is something which can be met in the current situation.
Top-down or ground-up
It can be approached in two ways: top-down, or ground-up. In the top-down - where we take the desired performance and remove elements until it is approachable. In the ground-up approach, we start with the current ability, and introduce elements of the target activity incrementally.
When the task is at an appropriate level of complexity, then each attempt is a success. As one attains familiarity and gains skill at this level, progressive stages of additional complexity can be introduced. Step by step, the student proceeds with success after success until eventually the initial goal is within reach.
Increasing complexity in the big picture
If we have expended our goal to include quality of coordination, then we have added a level of complexity. We would therefore need to reduce the complexity of the task by some other means to make it attainable whilst the aspirant acquires the skill to engage constructively in coordinating whist undertaking the talk.
One cannot reasonable expect progress to be linear. There are times when we will attempt something which is beyond current capability, and may result in failure. At this stage we revert to the previous level of complexity - to a state where success is consistent. Then we look for an intermittent stage which can add more subtle increments of complexity.
An example of learning piano by Progressive Complexity
A piano student attempt to perform a piece. The performance contains errors of pitch and rhythm. Each attempt results in failure to play the piece accurately and the student is frustrated.
We begin reducing the complexity demanded by the composition. In this case, I propose playing the right hand alone. If this is performed successfully, I check the student is also able to play the left hand satisfactorily on its own. At this stage, we are achieving success and the experience is positive. I expect, however, if I ask the student to play both hands again, we will get the same result as the initial, and the experience will be negative.
So I need to create an intermittent step between ‘hands separately’ and ‘hands together’. If the problem is rhythmic, then we can practice the rhythm without the complexity of concerning ourselves with pitch - i.e, we can clap the required rhythm in each hand. We could then tap the rhythm of the left, whilst we play the right as the next step towards playing both hands on the piano.
Another intermittent step would be to play the right hand part in full, but play only the notes of the left hand which fall on beat one. Then if this works, we could add in more of the left hand. If it doesn’t result in success, then we play beat one of every second bar in the left had. Or we play beat one only in both hands. Either of these propositions would reduce the complexity and increase the possibility of successful performance. Both would build on the skill of fulfilling the initial task, and ultimately to playing the full composition.
The particulars of introducing complexity will be determined by the piece itself. It is important thought, that our new task works to address the problem which presents. In our example, if our student practices hands separately, he has reduced the complexity, but wont be addressing the problem of two handed coordination.
In the context of Alexander Technique
Because it removes interference with natural coordination, Alexander Technique simplifies an activity. However, engaging the processes of Alexander Technique involves some conscious intentions which hitherto have not been engaged, so it makes the cognitive requirement on the student more complex.
Since the complexity has increased, if the skill desired is not being reached, then we need to manage the situation. If the task is beyond ability and we choose not to compromise on the coordination which arises from application of Alexander Technique, then we need to reduce the complexity of the task.
Choosing not to compromise coordination
This is another intermittent stage. We continue to train to improve the ability of coordination, but in order to practice it’s application, for some time, we may need to simplify the task. If our piano student above has attained a competency in performance, but along the way compromises coordination, then it may be appropriate to follow a similar process to that outlined above. Perhaps the pianist can maintain positive coordination whilst playing one hand only, for example. Then we introduce the next level.
At the outset, a new student has no skill in using Alexander Technique. Therefore the tasks presented in the lesson need to be very simple. If the pianist is unable to engage coordination positively whist sitting without playing, then it would be unlikely that increasing complexity by playing the piano at the same time would be productive for study.
In early sessions, Alexander Technique students may start with the top-down approach and make subtle modifications to performance to improve on coordination. More often, lessons start from the ground-up. Pupils learn to apply the technique to the basic positions of sitting, standing and lying down. From there, incrementally, more and more complexity can be approached without compromising the integrity of coordination.
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