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(Original written by Sharon Riley under the title "In what ways does the Alexander Technique facilitate flow experiences for the musician?")


An amateur pianist joyfully plays for an audience with a new and exciting energy that drives her forward as she effortlessly creates an improvised piece without nerves or hesitation. She’s not sure how this happens but is excited by what it implies. These types of experiences are not uncommon in the world of the Alexander Technique. Students of the Alexander Technique frequently find themselves, with the aid of a teacher, performing beyond their own expectations, perceived limitations and previous experience.


How do we find our way to this fountain of effortless and masterful skill, and joy? What are some of the ways in which the Alexander Technique facilitates these experiences? Based on the aphorism of Marjorie Barstow “you don’t want to repeat the feeling, but the mental process”[1], I would like, in this essay, to discuss and explore some of the Alexandrian thinking which may lead musicians to these curious and treasured experiences.

What is flow? Edit

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (Pronounced “cheek-sent-me-high-ee“) a Hungarian psychology professor who emigrated to the United States at the age of 22, has named these exceptional moments as ‘flow experiences’ and has been researching and writing about the topic for many years. His works are influential and widely cited.[2]


Flow is a metaphor used by many to describe a sense of effortless action that is experienced in moments that stand out. It is known by different names in various fields of human skill. Athletes use the term ‘being in the zone‘, religious mystics know it as being in ’ecstacy’ and artists and musicians know it as aesthetic rapture.[3]


“Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes. When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own.”[4]


Musicians report experiences of total absorption, heightened awareness and clear-mindedness; emotional involvement; a sense of connection with others and a sense of transcendence.[5]

What conditions are conducive to a flow experience?Edit

Mihaly states that “When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested.[6]


How does the Alexander Technique facilitate these conditions?Edit

Clear GoalsEdit

“Flow tends to occur when a person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses.”[7]


Intention and the Alexander TechniqueEdit

“Intentions, goals and motivation focus psychic energy, establish priorities, and thus create order in consciousness.”[8]

and

“Goals organise psychic energy by providing images of desired outcomes.”[9]


A major component of the Alexander Technique is to teach people how to form useful intentions. The Alexander directions are themselves intentions; requests that we make of ourselves; and an ordering and recruiting of psychic energy. The formation of these intentions requires an investment of time, thought and attention. We have the intention of releasing our neck, sending our head forward and up and allowing our whole torso to lengthen and widen and we trust that this happens and with experience, it does.


When studying and practicing the Alexander Technique, we spend much of our psychic energy thinking and directing. We do not direct for the sake of directing. Directions are given for the purpose of performing some activity. In workshops run by Cathy Madden we frequently hear her giving Alexander directions with a little “so I can …” at the end. Cathy has stated, that it is a desire to participate in some activity that motivates us to think about using ourselves well.


She also says, with regard to forming intentions “Specificity is your friend”.[10] Therefore, it is useful to include in your directions, in addition to requests for primary control, details of efficient movement and the desired outcome. Directions may even include an intention to play for an audience that is not currently present but will be at some time in the future. “My head moves and all of me follows, so I can bring my hands forward and up to the piano, so I can bring the music off the page for my future audience.”


The composition of your directions may be viewed as an ongoing creative process and may include something you are currently interested in or working on ie. An element of psychophysical use such as the inhibition of habitual inefficient movement and/or the execution of specific movements which adhere to instrumental technique or produce a desired quality of sound.


Flawed Intentions and the Alexander TechniqueEdit

“To ask something impossible of yourself creates tension.”[11]


An Alexander Teacher can help you to identify flawed intentions. Intentions may contain ideas about movement which are incorrect or fixed ideas which limit or conflict action.


In an AT workshop for musicians run by Cathy Madden in April 2009, when playing the piano for Cathy, I realised that my thinking was conflicted and that I was making a request for the impossible. I wanted to improvise and yet I was asking myself to play an ‘improvisation’ the same way every time. I shared this insight with Cathy and she designed this experiment for me:- I would start my improvisation and someone seated close by would call “change” and I was to change direction in my improvisation at their random prompt. Strangely, once I was free of my fixed idea I felt suddenly very awake, engaged and alive. I was improvising easily and felt like I could have gone on and on. It was a truly joyful and exceptional moment, a flow experience.


I had developed a strategy of working out my solos in advance and practicing them. My mistake was that I had locked myself into the idea that it had to be exactly the same every time forgetting that my practice was only a step toward true improvisatory playing.


I now believe we are asking for the impossible when we ask to play a song exactly the same every time we play it. At the very least it is not useful thinking. It creates rigidity and is stifling. Surely, every time we play a piece of music it will be played by who we are in that present moment, imbued with the current imagination and thinking and with the current conditions and manner of use. It would be more useful and inspiring to ask that every time we play a piece, we play it is as if it is born anew; being on the lookout for the new joy or challenge; and ready to turn at an unexpected pathway that will take us somewhere surprising and fresh.


Relevant FeedbackEdit

“Flow activities tend to provide immediate feedback.”[12]


Playing a Musical Instrument, the Alexander Technique and FeedbackEdit

Immediate feedback is an integral part of the act of playing music.[13] A quote, well known amongst musicians, by virtuoso violinist Jascha Heifetz states “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it, three days, the public know it.” This quote hints at the role of sound in providing clues to listeners of the practice habits of the player. It implies that practice at regular intervals is necessary to success and some may associate with this the idea that the amount of time put in to practice is also important. Perhaps, what is less obvious or even totally missing from this quote is the idea that the quality of movement at an instrument will be reflected in the quality of the sound.


The sound created at the instrument or by the voice acts as feedback for the quality of thinking and movement of the student. While this is acknowledged at various levels by instrumentalists and their teachers, depending on the extent of their knowledge and experience, the Alexander Technique sees quality of thinking and movement as a primary concern in the skilful act of creating beautiful music. Use affects functioning, functioning affects use.


One of the roles of the Alexander teacher is to provide feedback regarding both the student’s conception and quality of movement. She will do this via the use of verbal instruction or skilled use of her hands. On receiving this feedback, immediate improvements in the AT student can be seen in the quality of their posture and movement; and heard in the quality of the sounds they create with their voice or at their instruments. This new and improved use gives the student an experience of correct sensation and an appreciation of the importance of efficient movement in the creation of music.


The student of the Alexander Technique learns that thinking about and addressing issues concerning the quality of her movement is a means to satisfying her desires to improve at her instrument. This new focus in her playing will further attune her to the feedback provided by her instrument; and by fully occupying her ‘thinking in action’, continue to challenge what she already knows about playing her instrument, thereby keeping her playing fresh, alive and in the moment.


Challenges and Skills in BalanceEdit

“Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable.”[14]

When a task is too easy and our level of skill is high we get bored.

To enter a state of flow from a state of control we need to increase our challenge.[15] Our intentions need to be reviewed and refined and allowed to develop and grow, as we develop and grow. Csikszentmihalyi states that being in control is a positive state where we feel happy, strong and satisfied but we tend to lack concentration, involvement and a feeling that what we do is important.[16]


As a pianist learns a piece of music he may put it together a bit like a puzzle, learning it in layers. As the musician gains confidence in each layer, new layers are added and hence new challenges. The musician is engaging in skilled work and is familiar with the process of steadily increasing challenge. According to Mihaly once control in an activity is gained, boredom becomes an issue. In the pursuit of further challenge skilled musicians seek out increasingly difficult repertoire; learn new unexplored musical styles; join and form musical groups; and expand their performance settings.[17]


The Alexander Technique offers a new layer of study and thinking to what the musician is already familiar with. The technique asks the musician to think about how he moves at his instrument to create music. A musician faced with the task of thinking about his body in this new way whilst making music is fully engaged and challenged. The AT asks us to think in activity. This requires presence, alertness and above-average concentration.


Improvements in movement come about through the application of the technique and tend to result in a quality of ease at the instrument and in the execution of his music that the musician did not know was possible. But, in addition to this, the very act of thinking that is involved in applying the Alexander Technique is in itself conducive to the creation of a flow experience. Techniques that engage the mind increase cognitive involvement and result in more effective and efficient learning.[18] Steps taken to expand a musicians awareness whilst playing enhance the profound mindfulness which seems necessary to the flow experience.[19]

When a task is too difficult and our skill level is low anxiety results.

With a focus on process rather than results the Alexander Technique takes the pressure off students to perform at standards which may be unrealistic. Students suffering anxiety and low self esteem may do so as a result of focussing on an end product and setting unachievable goals for themselves.[20] An ability to play without self criticism has been identified as one of several major predictors of flow proneness in musicians.[21]


Musicians who have not experienced flow appear to have low self-confidence in their ability to play music and lack a sense of openness to discovery of new experience and sensations.[22] The study of the AT fills people with a sense of wonder and awe, and tends to ignite their interest and imagination. Rather than being extrinsically motivated, it is the intrinsic rewards that result from the explorations of the technique that motivate us to make the necessary investment of psychic energy, to engage and learn more.


In our studies, we found that every flow activity, whether it involved competition, chance, or any other dimension of experience, had this in common: It provided a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality. It pushed the person to higher levels of performance, and led to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. In short, it transformed the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.”[23]


ConclusionEdit

Whilst this study is far from complete, I believe it demonstrates that the common practices of the Alexander Technique contribute strongly to creating states of flow. The three core conditions conducive to creating flow are having well-defined goals, immediate feedback and a balance of skill and challenge. Through the practice of consciously giving directions and forming intentions; receiving immediate feedback via verbal instruction and the skilled hands of an Alexander teacher, via the feedback we receive from our observations in mirrors and quality of sounds we create; and by focusing largely on process we are satisfying the criteria necessary for creating conditions of flow, daily.


ReferencesEdit

  1. Marjorie Barstow, Direction Journal, Volume 1-2, 1996, p.41d.
  2. Wikipedia, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, accessed on 2. September 2010
  3. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow, 1997, page 29.
  4. Ibid, pg. 31
  5. Facilitating Flow Experiences Among Musicians, A.J. Bloom and P. Skutnick-Henley, American Music Teacher, April/May 2005 pp24-27.
  6. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow, 1997, page 31.
  7. Ibid, pg. 29
  8. Ibid, pg. 22
  9. Ibid
  10. Catherine Madden, Alexander Technique Workshop, Melbourne, April 2009. Personal notes.
  11. Ibid
  12. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow, 1997, page 30
  13. Facilitating Flow Experiences Among Musicians, A.J. Bloom and P. Skutnick-Henley, American Music Teacher, April/May 2005 pp24-27
  14. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow, 1997, page 30
  15. Ibid, pg.32
  16. Ibid
  17. Facilitating Flow Experiences Among Musicians, A.J. Bloom and P. Skutnick-Henley, American Music Teacher, April/May 2005 pp24-27.
  18. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience.
  19. Facilitating Flow Experiences Among Musicians, A.J. Bloom and P. Skutnick-Henley, American Music Teacher, April/May 2005 pp24-27.
  20. Foundations for Flow, A Philosophical Model for Studio Instruction, Krista Riggs, Philosophy of Music Education Review, 14 No. 2, (Fall 2006).
  21. Facilitating Flow Experiences Among Musicians, A.J. Bloom and P. Skutnick-Henley, American Music Teacher, April/May 2005 pp24-27.
  22. Ibid
  23. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York

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