I had mixed impressions of the week in Steiner House; some very good things and some not so good. Marj’s philosophy of the Technique was simple; you move your head delicately forward and up in such a way that the whole body lengthens and widens. I have emphasised certain words because they are of key importance in Marj’s way of describing the process. The directions to head and back are seen as precursors of movement. In order to make a movement one should be clear as to what leads the movement; it is the head. In what direction do you move the head? You move it forward and up. What is the quality of the movement? It is delicate or subtle. With regard to “the whole body lengthens and widens”, she insisted that one could say ‘body’ or ‘torso’ but nothing else; that is to say, not ‘spine’ or ‘back’. When one of the volunteers in Brighton used the expression “lengthen the spine”, Marj responded- somewhat surprised by the word – “Spine! What about the rest of you?”
The workshop was really too big. To have some sixty people, all teachers or teacher-trainees and all keen to work with Marj, was just too much. Her assistants, some of whom had been with her for many years and some of whom had not, also took groups, but people had come there to work with a first generation teacher rather than her assistants.
It takes a lifetime to really incarnate Alexander’s ideas; the assistant teachers were saying the right things but did not have the embodied knowledge to give the corresponding experiences. This is not a criticism of them or of Marj’s approach. The same could be said of any other teacher from any other background; time is a factor in embodying knowledge and there is no substitute for sixty years of work. At times though I felt the assistants were somehow in the role of apologists for Marj.
There was a certain sense of frustration amongst the participants that they were not getting what they had come for. In London, we were used to having a more direct contact with our teachers. There was, in Rudolph Steiner House, something of an “us and them” attitude. Many of us had just as much, if not more, experience as Marj’s assistants, and I felt an opportunity for more of an exchange or sharing was lost. The problem was primarily in the way the event was structured. There was more than a hint of a “master-plan” to introduce Marj’s approach to the rest of the Alexander world. I felt that Marj herself was not implicated in this. Some years later one of Marj’s oldest and closest colleagues told me how furious he was that Marj was being put on planes, taken all over the world and put in front of large groups of people whom she didn’t know – hardly even knowing what country she was in. Perhaps the Marj bandwagon was seen as a chance for someone to make a name for himself.
In London that year I wanted to take the opportunity to have an exchange “on a level playing field”, so to speak, and having made a friendly connection with one of the assistants over coffee one day, I invited her to meet to exchange work. I told her something about my lessons with Margaret Goldie, in particular the experience of a different quality of energy. “That sounds very like what Marj is trying to teach us”, she replied. Our exchange of work was very brief, but enough to give me some insight into the similarities and differences between our approaches.
I asked her if she knew Erika Whittaker, whom I had recently met for the second time at the Brighton Congress, and told her what an important experience my meeting with her had been “Oh, yes” she said. “We got to know each other when we were all assisting Marj at her Australian workshops; I thought of her as a friend, though, not as a teacher.” Some years later, when I had got to know Erika better, I was able to hear her recollection of the same encounter, which gave me a lot of insight into her approach to “teaching without teaching”. And the importance of a ‘well-timed gin and tonic’.
© 2014 John S Hunter
The ‘Marj’ workshops took place in Rudolph Steiner House next to Regents Park in London. There were many things which were not so good about the organisation of the event, but in this series I want only to speak about my experiences of watching and working with Marjorie Barstow.
I learnt a great deal from observing the way she worked and interacted with people. Although she had a somewhat autocratic manner (Erika said that even at Ashley Place in the early 1930s, Marj had a touch of the ‘school ma’am’ about her), it was tempered by a good deal of humour – often at the expense of the pupil if he or she asked a stupid question, tried to ‘do’ it or let their attention wander. Her assistants were very evidently aware of her presence and of when they were in her field of attention; they visibly went ‘on the alert’ when she came into the room. It was amusing to watch one of them quickly uncrossing his legs and rearranging himself like a naughty schoolboy when Marj fixed her eye upon him.
Then what was her ‘method’? Bearing in mind that I can only speak of what I observed that week, here are some impressions.
She encouraged people to observe, with as much accuracy as they could muster, exactly what they were doing. This was always related to an activity. The group she was working with would usually be asked what they wanted to do. This in itself put the onus on the pupil of engaging; of making a decision; of having the courage to ‘speak up’ and say what they wanted. For some, this was already a ‘bridge too far’.
Someone might then say that he or she wished, for example, to recite a poem. Marj would then invite the person to do so and she would watch. Afterwards, the person was invited to say what they were able to observe about themselves during the process. Other members of the group might be asked to say what they had observed. Marj would then use her hands to coordinate the person’s head, neck and back; then he or she was asked to repeat the poem. There was, of course, a noticeable difference between before and after. The moral was that in order to carry out any activity you need to put your head forward and up. That in itself was not new as an approach (for example Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker’s ‘application work’ in the Little School and Teacher Training Course). Marj used the ‘group dynamic’ to – as it were – reinforce the experience. This method of teaching can be a very powerful tool. It encourages observation, attention to process, decision making and what Marj called ‘constructive thinking’.
I wanted to experience more directly the ‘energetic aspect’ of her work; the ‘inner content’, so to speak. Hoping that she would take my hands, I asked her to help me work on someone. This ruse, however, did not work. I had expected that she would take my hands or my back and work with me on the pupil, but she just stepped back, fixed me with her eagle eyes and told me to get on with. I had not quite realised what I was letting myself in for.
Nevertheless, the experience gave me a helpful insight into what it was she was looking for. The pupil on whom I was working said that it ‘felt great’. Marj, however, was not interested in what the pupil did or didn’t feel. She was watching me. She said “I didn’t see you moving up as you put your hands on her”.
Afterwards one of the assistants came and gave me a reassuring ‘well done, brave try’ pat on the back, as though I had been through some kind of trial by fire. In a way I had, because, like trying to work on a pupil in front of Patrick MacDonald, you could feel her attention on you. She was ‘all there’. Nothing but the real counted, and you knew it.
Later in the week, however, I got my reward. While we were all working together Marj came over to me, placed one hand on my back and with her other hand placed my hand on a pupil’s neck. There it was! Crystal clear! My back softly expanded, energy flowed along my arm and through my hand, the pupil’s neck softened, his head went forward and up, his back lengthened and widened and he went gliding across the room. Then I could make the link. The actual experience of direction in the teacher, conveyed through the hands to the pupil, was essentially in no way at variance with what I had been learning for the past several years. Marj’s particular emphases – going into activity or movement, observation and ‘constructive thinking’ – were differences of form rather than content.
© 2013 John S Hunter
I first heard talk of Marj (Marjorie Barstow) when I was attending the STAT ‘think-tank’ in 1986, a sub-committee set up to look into the workings of the Society and suggest policy to STAT Council. One of the teachers present commented that having attended a Marj workshop she was impressed that everyone there was given the experience of their head going forward and up as they went into movement. At the time I found this comment somewhat strange, as I would have expected nothing less from an Alexander teacher, especially one trained by Alexander.
Many senior teachers in London were very negative and critical about her. Some referred to the work she did with large groups of people as the ‘Alexander Technique by remote control’, meaning that she did not use her hands much but tried to guide people by speaking to them as they were moving around the room.
At the time all this seemed rather distant and unrelated to what I was learning and beginning to teach.
However, in 1988 I had the opportunity to see for myself. I had decided to attend the 2nd International Congress in Brighton and Marj was going to be there giving some master classes.
She was small, slight and stooped, obviously suffering already from the loss of bone density which was soon to worsen, but with bright, mischievous eyes and an eagle-like attention.
She started her master-class in a very unusual but captivating way. Instead of standing on the stage she came down into the auditorium and stood in an obvious slump.
“What am I doing?” she asked in the long, drawn out vowels typical of her Nebraska accent, eliciting comments about her slumping or pulling down. People were already interested and enlivened; her presentation was obviously going to be interactive.
“I am waiting for a friend and she is late and I am fed up. I am really fed up” drawled Marj. She mimicked looking at the time and being seriously fed up in tone of voice and posture.
“Now how am I going to get out of this mess I am in?” she challenged.
“Go home and leave her there!”
“Inhibit and direct!”
“Release the tension!”
None of the suggestions offered were quite what she was looking for.
“If I want to get out of this mess then I am going to have to move” she said. “It is only a question of what leads the movement, in what direction and what is the quality of the movement. Watch me!”
She then simply put her head forward and up and moved off across the auditorium, her body releasing into length as she did so.
“If you are in a mess, you don’t have to stay there. You can move.”
For those who had eyes to see, the whole of the Alexander Technique was there in that simple, practical demonstration. Inhibition, choice, decision, intention, direction, movement, means-whereby. It was all there.
For the rest of the morning she worked with a group of volunteers on the stage and responded to various questions. But for me, that first ten minutes had said it all. I decided to sign up for a five-day workshop with her in London later that Summer.
© 2013 John S Hunter