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Practice of Jeremy Woolhouse, pianist and Alexander Technique Teacher in Melbourne, Australia

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

Jeremy Woolhouse

Attention during performance

A fine balance is required in the performing arts.  Attention must be divided among essential specifics, and simultaneously be united towards coordinated performance.  Too much attention on one aspect is as disastrous as too little.  

When musicians perform, we consciously initiate certain aspects of coordination and action.  Many more processes are managed outside of our 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 musical outcome.  

Those processes which do not respond to direct conscious influence are subject to indirect influence and thus still conditioned by our conscious thinking.

thinking in performance

Beliefs and concepts

Beliefs and concepts underpin functioning.  They are the canvas our moment-to-moment thoughts are painted on. A summation of moment-to-moment thoughts create habituated patterns of thought and action.  To alter any existing 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 practice or performance, are the way we can initiate change and improvement.  A consideration of what kind of thinking is constructive, and what is destructive, is essential.

Constructive thoughts


Constructive thoughts can be assigned to three fundamental categories.  During performance, thinking is most positive when we achieve a balance among:

Coordination
Technique
Artistry

These categories are broad, and subjective.  Consistently, however thoughts that fall outside their parameters constitute an interference with successful engagement in music making.


1.  Coordination

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 instrumental or vocal performance, some of them will not.  It remains auspicious to have an awareness of the poise of the whole self, or an intention about coordination.

All the artist’s specific vocal or instrumental skills are dependant on the support of the torso and the poise of the head on the spine.  The way the body supports the movement required of musical expression determines the capacity for expression.

Importantly, attention to coordination is also the path to preventing injury.  When instrumental or vocal demands are not processed through a coordinated whole, the body creates compromises which may place inappropriate load on specific body parts.  RSI is one example of this.


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

The Alexander Technique student learns to recognise how the coordination of the whole is affecting the specifics of performance.  One trains to refrain from habits of poor coordination and execution.  A thinking framework is studied which creates a positive poise to support and enhance performance.  

The well coordinated performer can attend to the next two areas, but must return consistently to the process of coordinating to maintain prevent habitual interference. A momentum of poise is also needed to prevent attention on technique and artistry from undermining balance.

 

2.  Technique

Beyond bringing the whole self into coordination, there are specific considerations for how one interfaces with an instrument (or the vocal mechanism).  

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.  

The brass player’s embouchure, the reed player’s tonguing, the vocalist’s breath, the string player’s bowing - all are examples of the performer’s interface with the instrument which have specific technical considerations.  Thoughts that relate to this can 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 engaged to enable the specific movements of music making.  Or that to employ effective instrumental/vocal technique, one must bring into service the coordination of the whole self.


3.  Artistry

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

The artist’s aesthetic is a personal palette of preferences.  It will be determined by personality and environment amongst other things.

The thoughts the performer has on artistry is what makes the employment of technique and coordination meaningful.


Integrating

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.


Interfering thoughts

If all constructive thoughts in performance fall within the areas of coordination, technique and artistry, all other thought is redundant to performance.  Some of these ‘other’ thoughts may directly interfere with performance, others may be of little consequence.  Thinking which is not in the productive categories is using attention which could be better employed elsewhere.

Within the set of coordination, technique and artistry, attention still needs to be managed to address the particulars of performance.  Some thoughts which fall in these categories will be inappropriate sometimes, and constructive at others.  Knowing when to attend to certain aspects of performance is a skill to be practiced and refined.

If one is competent in the music one is practicing, then errors which present in performance will not be random.  They will be related to attention which has been mis-prioritised, or thoughts outside the constructive modes intruding.  


Managing thoughts


In Soto Zen meditation, one has three things to attend to; the upright sitting poise, the hand position, and the visual field.  When you recognises 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, the practitioner chooses 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.  What is important is this: when you notice your attention is not where you want it, bring it back to what matters now.


Integration in performance

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.  We have three performance requirements to think about, and we direct our attention to them whenever it strays away.

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 of body, mind and task environment can ever present without the other.

The Alexander Technique develops an essential skill in unifying the mind and body with musical performance.  It optimises coordination for performance.

Other practice is required to perfect the technical instrumental/vocal requirement, and further 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.  Thus Alexander Technique serves to unify performer and performance, and facilitate optimum musical expression.

This article is a revised version of March 2015 blog post and was published in Music and the Teacher, the journal of the Victorian Music Teachers Association, Vol 43:2 / Spring 2017.

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