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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.

​Consciousness and The Zone

Jeremy Woolhouse

In the sports and performing arts, there is what is known as Flow, or “being in The Zone”.  It is considered the ‘state of mind’ where one is wholly absorbed in performance and is associated with moments of peak output.  Although heralded as the ultimate state, performers often report being The Zone also leads to pain, or that pain interrupts Flow.  This article considers the apparent paradox of using consciousness to preserve Flow and eliminate the negative side affects.  It is relevant to anyone who associates being deeply engrossed in a task with stiffness or soreness.  

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Elsewhere on this site I’ve discussed how Alexander Technique functions to alleviate pain.  In this article, I’m addressing an apparent barrier to using The Technique in performance.  I present some considerations of how Alexandrian thinking may be used in tasks which seem to contradict the engagement of consciousness.   

 

Mindlessness, Zen and The Zone

The Zone is usually considered a ‘state of mind’.  Ask how the creative work is being expressed, and one can see that creativity is not an activity which can be limited to mind.  The Zone must therefore encompass both body and mind, plus any metaphysical or spiritual considerations one subscribes to.

The state of Flow is sometimes compared to Zen, or The Zone some kind of trance.  I would call this “Zoning Out” and consider the complete detachment something which is not functional in normal life.  For example, if one’s obsessive attention to performance is lacking of an awareness of the listener, then communication cannot be said to be happening.  

Zen practice as it is taught in traditional forms is integrated with the environment.  One practices meditation with eyes open, not excluding external input. One simply chooses not to engage in it, unless the situation is called for.  This is in accord with a solution to the problem of pain in relation to being in The Zone.

 

The ideal and the problem

In The Zone, it is said the sense of self disappears, and there is only the creation.  This sounds wonderful, but in its normal understanding, it defines our problem; if one is fully absorbed by the task, one is not aware of one’s body.  One is therefore insensitive to abuse one may be inflicting on the body.  

We create a duality: one either is fully absorbed in art and compromises use of the self, or one compromises the artistic creation to pay attention to the way one uses oneself.

When Zen master’s speak of ‘body and mind dropping off’, they do not mean that anything is excluded - rather that everything becomes so unified that there is uninterrupted Flow between oneself and one’s practice.  The self doesn’t so much disappear, it becomes assimilated into action.

 

 Sense of Self

If the sense of the self dissolves, this doesn’t equate to the sense of the body dissolving.  The distinction is equivalent to that between being self consciousness and being self aware.  The former has within it an implicit judgement, the later is objective.  

Considering the ‘sense of self’, there are numerous things about my character which come to mind.  These may be my likes and dislikes, political persuasion, beliefs, prejudices, philosophies and so on.  To lose them, I lose my sense of ego.  If ego drops off, so too the associated judgements and fears dissolve and I have effectively removed many major barriers to peak performance.

What has disappeared is not the self, but a sense of self.  Subjectively, or intellectually, self may disappear, however, the body still functions in The Zone.  The sense organs still function and send the information to the brain, but the brain’s receptivity and responses are subjected to the force of consciousness. 

The body responds to our intentions, and if our intent is for exclusivity, then we open ourselves to potential self abuse.  The Zone can become a conscious process which demands priority and therefore inhibits the other functioning. 

 

Sensation and The Zone

In any practice, there is an interface between the artist and the art.  For the musician, it is the instrument.  For the singer, the vocal mechanisms are the interface between performer and performance.  One can use the sensation of the interface to initiate a process of integration of awareness of self into The Zone.  Accepting the tactile sensations from the hands (or vocal folds, or even feet on the stage) are entirely in accord with the creation of art, but also give the performer a critical sense of the efficiency of his or her movement.

 

Input, not output

One characteristic of The Zone is that it feels effortless.  In music, the experience is that the music plays itself, or the music “plays the musician”.  This is an inversion of what we train in conventional music instruction: that we need to train our technique to actualise our artistic ideals.  To direct specifics of technique may be useful in the practice room, and there may also be scope for it on stage, but it poses a threat to Flow.

If one’s attention to interface is considered an input, rather than an output, then it becomes consistent with the experience of Flow.  With each strike of the piano key, there is a plethora of incoming physiological information - the texture, weight and resistance to movement of the key, the impulse which travels from the keybed back up via fingers through arm to torso, etc.  If I allow these sensations to be part of the experience of The Zone, I have added myself into the picture.  If I exclude these sensations, I have effectively cut myself out.

 

Sound input

The incoming sensorial information is vast.  In the case of the musician, possibly the most important input is the sound coming from the instrument, in through the ears.  In the example above, each stroke of the piano key also carries with it information on tone, tempo, articulation, phrasing etc.  

To consider oneself a receptor of sound is an extension of the principle of opening awareness without interfering.  To operate at peak, the musician must be hearing what is happening.  An acknowledgement of this deepens the unity between the musician, the instrument and the music. 

Note this is not asking for the conceptualisation of the sound.  Such may be inconsistent with the experience of Flow.  The conceptualisation happens, the interface happens, and the receipt of sound happens, triggering the next conceptualisation - and so on.  This needn’t be something which is processed consciously - instead, merely something that the performer is conscious of.  That is a broadening of awareness.

 

The complete direction

Since we don’t want to be thinking anything which is a detraction to performance, there is an apparent issue with the indirect nature of AlexanderTechnique directions.  Since by principle, Alexandrian directions require attention to the global rather than the specific, and they prioritise the head to torso, it may seem that this could be a distraction.

One all important aspect of direction is often omitted in training The Technique.  The nature of study (especially in “classical” Alexander technique pedagogy) tends to abstract the directions.  They appear to be practiced for the sake of coordination.  This is not fully appreciating the principle of The Technique.  There is always some action for which we coordinate ourselves.  (This is exemplified in FM Alexander’s own journey; his discovery of principles of coordination and development of procedures were consistently oriented towards improving his theatrical performance.)

Directions must include something about performance and make explicit the context for coordination.  Clarity about what the coordination is for, tells the body what will be appropriate given the conditions at hand, and the task at hand.

I’ve written more about the complexities of goals and directions in other articles.

 

Playing with the whole

Consider the question of where your art comes from.  Somewhere within the artist is the formation of an aesthetic intent which then manifests in performance.  Few artists would point to their head and say “this is where I perform from”.  More place their hand on their heart.  Perhaps a dancer might say the core of their performance is the belly.  The distinction may seem purely philosophical, however a change does occur when placing the concept of artistic generation in different areas.

The whole body can also be the source of artistic performance.  Or, to include the emotional and possible metaphysical or spiritual aspects: the whole self can be the source.  This attitude embraces the concept of body-mind unity and creates a vehicle for being ‘in the moment’, cultivating Flow.   It brings the artist’s awareness of self into the creative process.

 

Exclusivity as a limitation - true freedom

If one requires exclusive attention to performance, this is a limitation.  Information from the environment expands the palette of the artist.  It’s like the difference of performing solo or in ensemble.  One’s colleagues’ contribution to music making means each performer must transcend their personal sound and adapt it to fit the ensemble.  The room acoustic and audience are other environmental factors which positively serve being in The Zone.  They lead the artist to surpass what can be created in isolation.

Being closed to external factors means reaction is limited.  The required choice of how one responds will present avenues which the solo performer does not have access to.   Awareness of one’s self or ‘internal environment’ is no less a stimulus which holds potential to expand on available palette.  The more we become inclusive, the more we stimulate our creativity.

 

Coordinated choices

In aesthetic choices, as in any other choice, we are subject to the forces of habit.  There are certain chord progressions I am presented with to which I feel compelled to approach in the same way I have for years.  There is a very rewarding thing I know how to play, and there is satisfaction in familiarity.  When one coordinates in accord to the principles of Alexander Technique, the habitual decisions no longer pose the same magnetism they had in the past.  More options present themselves as viable.  The body’s association with muscular attitude is inescapable.  In order to have true artistic freedom, one also needs true coordinative freedom.  Alexander Technique can function to enhance one’s freedom and engagement in The Zone, expand on creativity and avoid the common problems of associated pain.

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