Practicing Part I.

How/what are you practicing?

This is the first of several postings on practicing.  Many of us are working at refining something we already engage in or are learning something completely new and different.  In either case the process probably involves practicing (of some sort).  How one goes about getting better at something is an interesting topic. How and what one practices is very important to the outcome.

Geoff Colvin, in his recently published book “Talent is Overrated,” says deliberate practice is needed to improve any activity and he goes so far as to say that if one doesn’t continue to deliberately practice one can actually get worse at something rather than improve.

Sheer repetition of an activity is practicing of a sort but not deliberate practice.  I had one singing student tell me she warmed up while watching TV. She thought that she just needed to put in the hours and she would improve.  Such an extreme example makes it clear that she was just entrenching her habits into muscle memory without any consciousness or awareness of what she was doing.

In the Alexander Technique we learn exactly how to practice deliberately and what to practice. The Alexander Technique can address any activity at a very fundamental level. In fact, I think The Alexander Technique IS conscious deliberate practice.  The Alexander Technique gives us a process to follow that will lead us as far as we can go with our skill in an activity.  As you learn the AT you are learning to build conscious awareness of what/how you think while you are in activity.  From this awareness you learn what it means to deliberately practice in a way that focuses on the process, (Alexander would have said “the means”), rather than only on the goal.

It is my belief the whole point of the Alexander Technique, conscious awareness, and deliberate practice is to take our thoughts and actions off automatic pilot mode. Only then we can bring our habits in to our conscious awareness and make choices about how we are accomplishing very critical and essential aspects of the task at hand.

It is a skill to be able to take an action and break it down into practicable segments that will have an important effect on the outcome of an activity.  Colvin talks about deliberately practicing the parts of an activity rather than the whole activity itself. Then those parts in their “better” form will be available to you while you when you need them. A good Alexander Technique teacher will be able to help you discover the essential elements of any activity (singing, golf/tennis swing, jogging, typing, speaking) you wish to work on that will make the most difference to you. Even if the teacher isn’t proficient at your specific task, they are trained to look at fundamental elements of how you are doing what you are doing and guide you to new concepts and choices for accomplishing your task.

Let’s look at one fundamental aspect of speaking and singing: the inhale.

For the speaker or singer, the inhale, is critical to the vocal production.  If one has not deliberately addressed the inhale; being able to take air in without sucking and pulling (either through the mouth or nose) and where the air is directed on the inhale, it will make some difference to one’s singing if one focuses on pitch, consonants, vowel, and volume but probably won’t create the full desired effect. The fundamental support and airflow have to come first before phonation.

Here are some other aspects of the inhale that can be deliberately practiced.

The first step is to do a good long exhale with your best use and then as you allow the inhale:

-       Allow the sense of your body weight to go into the ground. This requires releasing your joints.

-       Keep your full body length on the inhale (no shrinking -age on the inhale). In other words stay long while the air flows down into your body.

-       Consciously direct the air in up behind your eyes and allow the air to inflate your body from the inside.

-       Sense the movement from the effects of your inhale all the way to your fingertips and toes.

-       Allow your tongue and jaw to be free and easy as you inhale. (Keep the root of the tongue easy too. Clue: The natural resting state of the tongue is higher than most people think.)

This is a good start for your inhale -- of course there are more aspects.

After you have deliberately practiced the parts of your own task, integrate the segments you practiced into your whole activity. Be conscious of allowing the whole to be different and informed by the practice you just performed.

Often students say, “this is much easier physically and much more difficult mentally.”  Ah – then they are paying attention. That is great. In the case of the speaker/singer, when the awareness is there, the sound is much freer, more resonant and easier to listen to.