The Gifts My Students Give

Happy New Year!  2012 was a wonderful year for me (hope it was for you, too!) Lots of memorable experiences both in teaching the Alexander Technique to musicians, and in performing. My blog readership has grown exponentially and I feel thankful and encouraged by the positive feedback, requests and suggestions.

As I do at the beginning of each year, I’d like to reflect upon my teaching experiences from this past year, and share some of the highlights with you.

It is a well-worn cliché to say that “to teach is to learn”, but it is oh, so true. And this last year in particular has been rich in all the things I’ve learned from my students. I feel blessed by all the energy, curiosity and passion my students have, and thankful for how they gift me with their observations and insights. Because of them, I continuously grow and improve as a teacher, and feel thankful that I can pass on their wisdom to you, and to all my students.

I’ve had the privilege to teach students one on one in person, and to teach classes in the community and at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where I’m a faculty member. But some of the most surprisingly rewarding teaching I’ve done this past year has been teleconferencing via Skype, in the role of practice coach to professional and amateur musicians. I’m still amazed at what can be accomplished through this medium.

So what I’d like to share with you here are some of the most common (what I deem “universal”) principles that my students discover and/or reaffirm as they evolve and progress in their musical learning journeys. I won’t elaborate much on each one right now, but most likely will write about them in depth in the coming year (and have already written about some of them on this blog). Here they are:

  • The ability to stop is the most essential skill you can cultivate if you wish to improve. Learning when and how to stop is the only way you’ll ever change your unwanted habits. Carrying on in the same, ineffective way only yields more of the same. And it leads to frustration.
  • The most essential aim of practicing your instrument (voice is an instrument, too) should be to give yourself good experiences. Rather than playing something poorly 20 times to try to find one good “take”, stop (see above), redirect your thinking, slow down a bit, and give yourself a chance to have the experience of staying in easy control of what you do as you play.
  • Managing your fear response is crucial. Almost every undesirable habit you have as a musician is some form (from mild to severe) of a fear response. (Yes, even when you’re practicing by yourself!) Learning how to change your thinking to deal with this will make you a better, much more consistent performer.
  • Pay great attention to the details of what you do with yourself as you play, but be careful not to micro-manage them. Be aware, but don’t put all your attention on one small aspect of what you do as you play (e.g., don’t obsess about what your fingers should or shouldn’t do as you play saxophone). You’ll make things worse, not better. Come back to being aware of the whole of you.
  • Their is a hierarchy in how you should direct yourself when you play. (This is specifically for students of the Alexander Technique) Always start with directing your head/neck relationship first, no matter what other problem you perceive in your playing. Free fingers depend upon free arms, which depend upon free shoulders, which depend upon a free neck.
  • How you “hear” yourself when you play involves more than just your ears. The experience you have of yourself as you play is multi-sensory: what you feel kinesthetically, what you sense in your skin, what you see, how you perceive balance as you sit or stand, even what you feel emotionally.
  • There is no such thing as having a “bad day” practicing.  Try not to judge an entire practice session as bad, as if you’ve wasted your time. You play moment to moment. If you don’t like what you’re hearing in any particular moment, change your thinking, and improve your playing. Instantly.
  • Be careful not to confuse cause with effect. Try to understand why things work they way they do. Often what you see other players doing that seem to be helping their playing is an effect of something else that they’re doing (or more typically, what they’re not doing).
  • You don’t know what it should “feel” like when you play well, nor should you care. You improve in your playing because you do things differently than you did before. Period. To improve, you’ll continue to do things differently. If you get too hung up on what it should feel like when you’re playing well, you’re looking to the past, instead of staying present with what’s really happening in the moment. This increases your fear response and usually leads to frustration. Trust your ability to direct and inhibit (again, this is for those with Alexander Technique experience), and you’ll achieve optimum results.
Each lesson that I teach, I’m brought back to these principles time and again. My students share with me through their own thinking processes and their own experiences how they solve their problems, often in rather ingenious ways, but always coming face to face with these (and  other Alexander) principles. It’s always so satisfying for me to witness the various manifestations of this problem solving method. So in this year, I encourage you to consider some of these ideas. See if it helps you to practice more successfully and enjoyably. Let me know. Best wishes for a fruitful 2013!


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