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Practice of Jeremy Woolhouse, pianist and Alexander Technique Teacher.

Specialist in working with musicians, RSI, posture re-education, neck, back and chronic pain management. 

Articles on Alexander Technique in life - by Jeremy Woolhouse

Monthly blog articles by Jeremy Woolhouse.  Alexander Technique for daily life, specialised activities, pain relief and managment.

Constructive thinking in performance: fundamental principles of peak performance of any skill.

Jeremy Woolhouse

A fine balance is required to manage any specialised skill.  Attention must be divided amongst essential specifics, and simultaneously be united towards coordinated performance.  Too much attention on one aspect is as disastrous as too little.  I consider three fundamental categories encompass all constructive attention. Thinking is most positively constructive to coordinated performance when balanced across the three areas.  Thoughts outside of their parameters interfere with successful engagement in skilled activity.  

We all have specialised skill sets - acts that we are familiar with and can engage with effortlessly.  These may be routine household chores, professional or artistic applications. Whilst we practice our skill, we consciously initiate certain aspects of coordination and action.  Many more processes are managed outside of consciousness.  Some we can learn to become aware of and we may learn to directly modify these.

Although the intricacies of any craft have numerous processes which appear automated, our manner of influencing them is via consciousness.  What we think about whilst we are performing determines the quality of our entire being, as well as the outcome of our efforts.  Those processes which do not respond to direct influence are subject of indirect influence and thus still conditioned by our conscious thinking. 

Beliefs and concepts underpin functioning.  They are the canvas our moment-to-moment thoughts are painted on. A summation of moment-to-moment thoughts created all our habituated patterns of thought and action.  To alter any pattern or change any habit, requires a change in the current moment’s thought and action.

The thoughts we form now, in the moment of performance, are the way we can initiate change in all aspects.  A consideration of what kind of thinking is constructive, and what is destructive, is essential.

I propose constructive thoughts relate to:

  1. Coordination
  2. Technique
  3. Artistry

These categories are broad, however thought that falls outside constitute an interference to effective practice.

1.  Coordination

This is the specialist realm of Alexander Technique.  Thoughts about how one is oriented, the efficiency of movement, balance, posture, muscle tone, ordering of muscle recruitment, and breathing all are within this category.  Whilst many of these will directly relate to performance of specialised skills, some of them will not.  It remains auspicious to have an awareness of the poise of the whole self, or an intention about coordination.  The manner of use of the whole determines the effectiveness of performance, and the ease of the performer.

The skill of effective thinking in relation to coordination is universal as it is about the use of the self.  It is what one learns in Alexander Technique training.

2.  Technique

Beyond bringing the whole self into coordination, there are specific considerations for any skill.  The attention to how a coordinated person interfaces with an instrument or piece of equipment is an example of this.

In the case of the pianist - the particulars of instrumental technique require some attention to fingering, speed of key stroke, timing, movements of the arm and wrist etc.  The quality of that movement will be greatly influenced by the state of coordination.  Whilst the poise of the seated position is relatively generic, the particulars of the pianist’s interface - that is the way the fingers meet the keys - are movements specific to playing the piano.

A carpenter’s hammer technique, a driver’s consideration of gear change and road conditions, the author’s choice of words or the way any of us use a computer are all examples of specific technical considerations.  Thoughts that relate to this will be beneficial to the performance of the task when balanced with thoughts on coordination and artistry.

It could be said that the coordination of the self is addressed to enable the specific movements of the task, or vice versa - that to employ effective technique, one must consider the coordination of the whole self.  Both function interdependently.

3.  Artistry

A pianist’s attention to coordination and technique will not be enough to guarantee something of musicality is produced.  There is also the consideration of artistic intent - the expressive, emotional or communicative aspects of the performance.  The choice of when and how much to crescendo is an artistic decision.  The execution of the crescendo is a technical consideration.  

Artistry can be considered the ‘big picture’ of any endeavour.  It needn't be a skill classified in ‘The Arts’.  Another word may be craftsmanship.  If you ask a mechanic what marks a great mechanic, the answer will have some elements which transcend technical considerations of tasks.  In my use of the word, ‘artistry’ is what makes the distinction between one having a ‘job’ or ‘occupation’ and one having a ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’.  The thoughts in this arena are what make meaningful the employment of technique and coordination.

The manner of coordination will affect both what the artist chooses to express (artistry) and the way in which it can be expressed (technique). The artist’s aesthetic choices will also be inevitably expressed in the way he or she coordinates the whole body. 

Coordination, technique and artistry form a synergetic trio.  Whilst a performance might require dominance of one aspect, if the others are excluded, they may cease to function to effectively support the whole performance.  The artist who chooses to focus exclusively on aesthetics, risks a compromise on technique and coordination which will undermine an ability to express artistry.  Similarly, an obsession with technique may lead to dysfunctional coordination and a performance lacking in artistry.  And one who leaves aside technical and artistic considerations in the pursuit of poise will have coordinated themselves for no purpose - and thus have difficulty knowing what and how to coordinate.

Other Thoughts

If all useful thinking falls within these three categories, then all other thought is redundant to performance.  Some other thoughts will be directly interfering with the performance of the task, others will simply be a distraction.  Since it is difficult to maintain more than one train of thought at any one time, thinking which is not in the productive categories is using attention which could be better employed.

If one is competent in the skill one is practicing, then errors which present in performance will not be random.  They will be related to attention which has deviated from the constructive modes.  There is also no scope for performance anxiety when one adheres to the three categories of thought.  Anxiety is derived from thoughts of failure, judgements or other things which are outside of the constructive set.  Returning attention to balancing the three spheres constitutes an method of dissolving performance nerves.

In Zen meditation I’ve experienced, one is instructed to maintain the form of meditation - the upright sitting poise, the position of the hands, and the eyes open.  When one of these becomes compromised, you attend to it.  This requires some base level of awareness to know when that happens, but does not demand this attention be exclusive.

When other thoughts present, without trying to force them from the mind, we can choose not to engage with them.  An analogy is sitting in a room and having people come in every now and them.  You don’t need to tell them to get out, but neither do you invite them for tea.  Thoughts are transient things and will pass of their own accord.  There is no need to attempt to prevent them from arising.  Such an effort is futile and it contradicts normal human brain function.

 

In performance of art, or practice of craft, the requisite attention to skill seems to ask for something more complex than sitting meditation.  The skill of thought management however, is the same.  I say ‘thought’ but as we have seen, the thinking process is inseparable from the body which expresses and feeds thoughts, as well as the task or environment that give it context.  No one aspect can ever present without the other.

The integration of this is critical to successful engagement in any sphere.  The Alexander Technique develops skill in just one part of the trifold process.  Other practice is required to perfect the technical considerations of the form, and other study is needed to generate artistry.  However the artistry and technique will be undermined by the performer who is unable to manage to coordinate the use of the self in performance.  To date, I’ve found no education more profound in this aspect than Alexander Technique.

 

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