Patrick Macdonald did not, in those later years, speak very much when teaching, but he knew the moment when a few words could help to either induce helpful self-questioning or make something clear.
I recall two such incidents which took place during my last period of study with him.
I was working on one of my colleagues. Mr Macdonald was watching and reminding me with a gesture of his thumb to “take her up!”. Then something shifted; that recognisable change in state occurred in which everything begins to flow. Mr Macdonald leant over towards me, looked me in the eyes and said, very simply and very directly in a quiet but firm voice– as if confiding something both important and personal:
“That’s right! Never mind about her! You look after yourself!”
Then the moment was over. He changed, stood back again and in his usual voice said,
“Go on then, take her up! Your job is to take her up.”
But I wasn’t fooled. Something that I had already at certain moments tasted was now understood; that experience will always stay with me.
In my last lesson with him I remember asking him, when I felt myself moving freely in and out of the chair,
“Who is doing this, Mr Macdonald? You or me?”
“Who do you think is doing it?” he replied.
“I don’t know”, I said.
A minute or so later, when something had really got out of the way and a finer energy was flowing, he asked:
“Who is doing it now?”
“Nobody is doing it,” I replied. “It’s just happening.”
“That’s right,” he said. “It’s just happening.”
And again, at that moment – something was understood.
© John Hunter 2015
At the time I was going to Lewes to work with Patrick Macdonald I was Chair of STAT, though I kept rather quiet about that as the Society was distinctly out of favour with Mrs Macdonald. There were some complicated issues that had to be dealt with regarding the students who had chosen to continue studying with him after his move to Lewes, rather than staying in the school in Victoria, the directorship of which was taken over by Mr Macdonald’s former assistant, Shoshana Kaminitz.
“They say they can’t give them STAT certificates” said Mrs Macdonald. “That would be pretty silly, wouldn’t it!”
This was the first I had heard about the problem. Indeed it would be ‘pretty silly’, I thought. There was nobody more experienced or better qualified to train teachers. I told her I would try and help.
It turned out that, having retired from running the school in Victoria, Mr Macdonald had not renewed his membership of STAT when it next came due. Because of the Society’s own regulations this meant that it was unable to recognise Mr Macdonald’s students. At our next Council meeting we found an ‘elegant solution’, which was to confer upon him honorary membership; his graduates were duly elected as teaching members. The practice of conferring honorary membership on some of the Alexander Elders has continued since then, though Walter Carrington declined the offer, not wishing to be singled out for special treatment.
There were other incidents related to Mr Macdonald’s condition following his illness in New York (and the way some tried to take advantage of that), but discretion forbids I go into details. Suffice it to say that one member of Council, no longer in the Society, shocked me at a Council meeting with – what seemed to me – the pure political spite he manifested; another member of Council touched me with the generosity of spirit she showed. The former demanded that Mr Macdonald be charged with serious professional misconduct. There was a stunned silence. The latter, Dilys Carrington, came to the rescue – saying calmly and authoritatively that that would be “quite inappropriate”. The person who had raised the matter remained silent…But all that belongs in the category ‘Self-destructive Alexander Politics’ (which may never get written).
“They study anatomy and all sorts of things these days” said Mrs Macdonald. “They make it all so complicated. All you need to do is to learn how to coordinate yourself. Mind you” she added, after a pause, “having said that….. it took me thirty years!”
Allison Macdonald had trained with AR Alexander in the US; apparently Patrick Macdonald didn’t rate her teaching too highly.
He would remind you, in words and gestures, that your job, as he put it, was to ‘take the pupil up’. He fixed you with his attention and as soon as yours even considered wandering away from an upward thought he would show you his thumb and point it upwards.
“Go on then; take him up. Your job is to take him up.”
“How did FM work, Mr Macdonald?” asked one of our party.
“He took his pupil up”
“By going up himself. Alexander was going up the whole time.”
© 2014 John S Hunter
Patrick Macdonald contracted a serious illness whilst teaching in New York in the late ’80’s and retired from running his school in Victoria, London. However, he continued to teach from his home in Swanborough near Lewes, East Sussex and soon attracted visitors from all over the world.
A trip to Swanborough was quite a ritual; meeting two or three colleagues at Victoria Station, a journey of an hour or so to Lewes, then a taxi ride out of the town and into the countryside. Most of the taxi drivers knew where to go if you just said “Mr Macdonald’s in Swanborough”.
His wife Allison would answer the door. Mr Macdonald, if he wasn’t working, and their two large dogs would come and greet you.
Mrs Macdonald liked to chat, but after a minute or so he would say “Come on then, let’s start to work” and lead you into an area of the living room – with a view out into the garden – right beside his aviary, which had a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window through which one could see the birds chirping away. Not that one was there to look at the birds, and if one’s attention got distracted, Mr Macdonald would soon bring you back.
As soon as his hand touched the back of your neck, he knew your level of experience.
“You’ve been at this game for quite a while, haven’t you” he said.
His illness – a viral infection that had got into his brain – had affected him rather like a stroke; some of his mobility was impaired and he did not communicate very much. His hands and his “work attention”, however, had lost none of their force.
It was as well to go with colleagues as otherwise the continuous movement in and out of the chair could become tiring. On one occasion, thinking I might gain some respite, I asked him to do “hands on the back of a chair” with me. “Yes, all right” he said. A colleague brought another chair over, Mr Macdonald quickly placed my hands on the back of it and, with my hands still there, resumed getting me in and out of the chair……
The most rewarding part of the experience, though, was putting hands on each other under his guidance. Then, you were in the crucible ….. and there was no escape.
© 2013 John S Hunter
Patrick J Macdonald was the son of Dr Peter Macdonald, one of a number of medical doctors who strongly supported Alexander.
The young Patrick was sent to Alexander by his father when he was about twelve years old because he was, as he said himself in later years, “rather poorly co-ordinated”.
Soon after graduating from Cambridge he joined the first training course, which was already up and running at Ashley Place.
My work with him was intermittent over a period of eight or nine years.
He was certainly extraordinary. The awe and respect he commanded in his students – some of whom who had been with him since the late fifties – forewarned one of what one might expect, but the experience of a lesson with him could not really be imagined. His touch transformed you; you became a field of energy which, only incidentally, caused the physical body to move. This approach, the flow of energy – particularly along the spine – seems to me to have been uniquely Mr. Macdonald’s.
His 1963 Annual Memorial Lecture repays careful study, as does his book “The Alexander Technique as I See It”.
Key passages are:
“He (Alexander) found that the body was a fluid thing, its various parts held in their proper relationship by a continuous flow of impulses”
“These impulses, which are analogous to electrical currents, are small, but their effect over years is very large”
“It is possible to demonstrate two forces, or sets of forces, acting in the human body, and, in particular, along the spine”
“Force “A” has a tendency to contract and distort”
“Force” B” has an expansionary or elongatory tendency. It is often referred to, in a general way, as “life”. It produces a “lightness” in the body, which I take to be the natural, though not any longer the normal, condition. This lightness is …. not that of avoirdupois. It has an anti-gravitational direction. I presume that the natural interplay of these two forces brings about the integrity of the body, which sets the stage for proper health.”1
I asked Mr Macdonald if I could work on him. His back, though deformed from some condition he had, struck me as having an unusual quality of ‘aliveness’ – like an animal.
At first I was only aware of the force of gravity acting through him, very strongly, but when I stopped trying to ‘do’ he moved lightly in and out of the chair.
I carried on, rather like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – not quite knowing how to stop, until he got fed up and said, rather sharply, “Do something else now!”
I put him in a monkey and did one or two other ‘procedures’, which I cannot recall. He did not have a negative word to say. This surprised me as I had heard such stories about him and how tough he was. He just muttered, “Yes! That’s it! That’s right!”
I learnt a day or two later, from colleagues who were training with him, that when he went back into his class he was full of praise for this “student from another course who knows something about the Alexander Technique”, almost using me as a stick to beat his students for their ‘general indifference and uselessness’.
I do not recount this story out of pride. I had little idea at the time of what was really going on in my lesson. Mr Macdonald had, in working on me, brought something to life in my body; he had transmitted a certain energy. I was, for a few moments, able to let that energy flow in me without getting in the way. However, I was not at that time able on my own to ’embody’ that energy; it soon wore off. But the experience did confirm what we were working on daily with Misha Magidov, with whom I was then training; that it is possible to be animated by, and to animate in another, a different quality of energy.
1. The Alexander Technique As I See It, Patrick MacDonald. Chapter 3: Why We Learn the Technique. Published by Rahula Books, 1989. (back to text).
© 2013 John S Hunter
I was in my second or third year of training with Misha Magidov when I had my first lesson with Patrick Macdonald. I had seen him only once before, to the best of my recollection, at a STAT Annual Memorial Lecture.
When I arrived in his basement premises in Victoria, London, he was just finishing giving a lesson to a middle-aged woman who, he said to me, wanted to stay and observe my lesson, if I had no objection. The woman was Rivka Cohen – curious, perhaps, to ‘check out’ one of the first trainees of her Israeli colleague of many years.
Mr Macdonald put me in front of a chair and began to get me in an out of it. He had already ‘sussed me out’ by then, and when Rivka asked him something about me his response was “He’s OK, but too serious!” Then I laughed; something let go and everything flowed freely – so long as I did not try to work out what was going on or even think about it. I just had to get out of the way.
“Ahh! That’s more like it!” he said.
Then he put me on the table, moved quickly around me taking my head, arms and legs; then off the table and into lunges and monkey. Then it was over.
The lesson did not seem very different from what I was used to. As I left I felt somehow ‘the same’ as before, but with ‘something extra’. A different quality of energy had been awoken in me; an energy to which I did not normally have access.
© 2013 John S Hunter