Tips4Teachers – Group Work and Individual Work

I think group work is great! I think one-to-one lessons are great too. What is most important is the quality of work, not the medium. Then assuming that we are speaking of good quality work, what are the pros and cons of each?

Group work pros:

  • Group work involves interaction with other people and in that regard it is more like real life.
  • Many of our habits and tensions are intricately linked with personality traits which only manifest in certain situations, often related to other people.
  • Like Alexander and his voice problem, many tensions become exaggerated with the stress of performance – often related to a feeling of being judged or even just observed. This can include being under scrutiny in very ordinary ways. Group work provides a medium in which to learn about and deal with this.
  • Many pupils never have the chance to exchange with their peers. The only other person they know who has any interest in Alexander work is their teacher, and one cannot have a peer relationship with one’s teacher. Trainees have the chance to interact and, thinking back to one’s own training, teachers can see how important that was.
  • Group work gives scope for role-play, a dynamic tool for bringing to life real situations in which people have difficulties – and showing the efficacy of applying inhibition and direction.  This is not for the inexperienced teacher or nervous pupil. It ought not to drift into psychodrama as this is something for which we have no formal training. It needs to be maintained at the non-clinical level (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychodrama: Psychological applications.), where nevertheless significant insights into misuse can be brought into the light.

Group work cons:

  • Without regular and focused hands-on work the Alexander Technique does not penetrate sufficiently deeply into the organism; i.e. there is no embodiment of the teaching.
  • Many people are self-conscious about their difficulties and would never consider bringing them into a public forum – at least at the beginning
  • The mental aspect of Alexander’s work can become dominant, giving too much scope for interpretation based on idiosyncratic personality traits. The body, however, does not lie.

Individual work pros:

  • The most important experiences are deep and inner; the quiet atmosphere of the private lesson is more conducive to such moments.
  • Some psychophysical problems need a great deal of untangling; group work, with its limited scope for hands-on work, can be – as Peggy Williams once put it to me – “….about as effective as giving an aspirin to an elephant”.
  • People are very different types. Getting to know the psyche, nervous system and habit patterns of a pupil is a very personalised process. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of group work does not and cannot this fact take sufficiently into account. Only one-to-one teaching gives scope to tailor the lesson to the needs of each individual.

Individual work cons:

  • One-to-one lessons can be expensive. Even though many teachers have a sliding scale of fees, some people feel that it would be just too self-indulgent to have private lessons in anything, so they wont try it.
  • The hands of the teacher and the refined atmosphere of the teaching room can facilitate experiences which are almost impossible for the pupil to reproduce – often for a very long time. A false expectation is built up and the pupil, schooled in a kind of “Alexander virtual reality”, does not learn how to deal with the stimuli and reactions of their everyday lives – let alone more the demanding situations in which we all at times find ourselves.

I am of course generalising and many examples can doubtless be found of pupils who have progressed satisfactorily following both approaches.

Training

During a student’s training it is important to provide sufficient focus on hands-on skills as this is the critical time when the embodiment of the teaching takes place. If this understanding of what might be called the “core work” of Alexander’s method is not absorbed into one’s being during this time, it is possible that it never will be. The skills involved in group work are not so different from those in other disciplines; acting, tai chi, movement or many other activities. The teacher needs to observe carefully what the pupils are doing and communicate clearly. Such skills can be developed according to the interests and capacities of each individual (utilising prior or parallel teaching experience in other fields, for example, or undertaking additional educational training such as is now anyway required by many local authorities before employing teachers to run adult education courses).

The “core work”, however, is unique to our discipline and cannot be learned elsewhere.

Best of both worlds

My personal preference is to include both, offering to the pupil the learning experiences which are most appropriate at different stages of their journey. The two approaches help the pupil to see in context what they are learning and what they need to deepen, and help the observant teacher to see gaps in the pupil’s (and their own) understanding.

© 2014 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – Stopping and Inhibition; similar but different

I see ‘stopping’ as an umbrella term, which includes several different inner processes, one of which is

“… inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus.”1

If I am in an agitated state, rushing, trying to do several things at once, end-gaining, unaware of my physical body – I can stop. Stopping means ceasing unnecessary activity, be it physical (muscular), emotional, nervous or mental. Miss Goldie called this ‘coming to quiet’: “Quiet throughout, with particular attention to head, neck and back“.

Stopping can be tried at any time one becomes aware of unnecessary “doing”. Sometimes, depending on the degree of agitation, we may not be able to ‘stop’ unless we withdraw for a time – even lie down. At other times it needs only a few seconds, just to remember to organise oneself. It is a psycho-physical calming down. Erika described it as “Clearing the clutter out of your mind so that you can make a decision”

As ever with Erika, “a means to an end and not an end in itself”.

Inhibition is on another level and is much more difficult – practically impossible without some experience of a quieter, more integrated (directed) state. It demands presence, awareness and a free attention at the point in time and space the stimulus is received. It is the key not to inaction but to new experiences – even true spontaneity.

Inhibition can only take place at one very specific moment; the one in which a stimulus is received. Yes, we are all receiving stimuli all the time, but I am referring to “inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus.” This process takes place at “brain-thought level”, as Miss Goldie would express it, and not in the body. If the messages get into the nervous system, it is too late to ‘inhibit’. You can, of course, send countermanding messages, but that creates conflict; having energised nerve pathways, you are then trying to prevent muscles from responding. That is not inhibition, it is freezing – and is one of the causes of what is sometimes referred to as ‘the Alexandroid syndrome’. If you are too late to inhibit, then you can, of course, try and stop, i.e. come to quiet, clear away the clutter from your mind and make a fresh decision.

Neuroscientists inform us that when a stimulus is received, many reactions take place before we have become aware at a conscious level of the stimulus. That may be so; consciousness need not concern itself with everything. Nevertheless, there are certain key patterns of neural activation which take place by dint of being the paths of least resistance, and there is a micro-window of opportunity to ‘stay mentally fluid’ as stimuli begin to impact, and allow options to appear. This happens very quickly – almost in a different time-scale. It is a high-energy state in which the wonderful possibility of ‘the new’ appears, with all its freshness and at times, in the face of the unknown, a degree of trepidation.

One pupil expressed the dilemma very well:

“It is as though I step out of a prison. look around me and see that I am free. I could do anything I want. Then I turn around and step back into my prison.”

How much safer is the known!

Alexander did though see his work as evolutionary in scale. It takes time to get used to living in a new medium, as the first land creatures must also have experienced.

1. Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995). “Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus.”

© 2013 John S Hunter

The First Training Course in 1931: a different perspective

I was very curious to try and understand what Erika Whittaker meant when she once said to me that there was essentially no difference between the ‘styles’ of Macdonald, Carrington and Barlow because “…they are all about teaching”.

Some years later I reread what had been written about the first teacher training course by Lulie Westfeldt in particular (F Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work1 ), Walter Carrington and Marjory Barlow and went back to what Erika had said about FM and the first training course in her Annual Memorial Lecture and other writings. What follows is my personal perspective based on the published material referenced in the footnotes and the conversations I had with Erika over a period of several years.

During the first training course, which began in 1931, some of the students became frustrated that they were not, as they saw it, being ‘taught how to teach’. Although they maintained their respect for FM’s knowledge and abilities, they did not think he was giving them the necessary help to learn how to do what he was doing. This group consisted of Patrick Macdonald, Lulie Westfeldt, Kitty Merrick and Marjory Barlow (née Mechin). They began to observe what Alexander was doing and tried to recreate it themselves by working on each other.

“One of my colleagues (Patrick Macdonald) came out and expressed our problems in words, clearly and forcefully. He said in effect, ‘We have missed the boat. We really do not know what the Primary Control is. We cannot get it at will with our hands. We have got to realize this as we work, and somehow or other pull ourselves up by our own boot straps until we have some solid ground under our feet.’ We had known it in a way, but not with sufficient clarity to be able to express it. WIthout his clear sensing of the problem and his creative thought in helping us solve it, we would have failed as teachers, fourth year or no fourth year.

This colleague, by clearing up a basic point, had resolved our confusion and doubt. This made the greatest difference to us and our work together became increasingly rewarding. We worked as in a laboratory, using each other as guinea pigs, the group mind gradually bringing to light the problems involved in getting the HN & B (head, neck and back) pattern to function. Simultaneously our minds and our hands advanced in knowledge. As I look back upon this time it seems to me that the colleague who expressed our problem was the leading mind in getting us out of the swamp.”2

Marjory Barlow also spoke of this group:

“We were a group: Pat Macdonald, Kitty Merrick, Lulie Westfeldt and me  – it was those four out of the twelve. We always worked together…”3

When Walter Carrington joined the course he was largely influenced by key members of this group.

“I thought that Pat Macdonald was an extremely good teacher and was finding out about things; Marjory Barlow also. I didn’t much admire what some of the other teachers were doing, but I thought that things would eventually work out for them.”4

“I think I am right in saying that it was Pat Macdonald who gave me an introduction to ‘hands-on’. He used to sit in a chair while I put my hands on his head, then he told me what I was doing wrong. So the instructions about the hands did not come from FM initially, but from the junior teachers.”5

“Patrick and Walter and I (Marjory Barlow) worked together such a lot in the early days … when he (Walter Carrington) first came onto the training course. We sort of took him under our wing a bit.”6

Then what of the other group? If they did not agree with Macdonald’s assessment of the situation and his way of dealing with it, what did they think they were there to learn and how did they go about it?

This group consisted of George Trevelyan, Erika Whittaker, Gurney and Jean MacInnes, and Irene Stewart. Neither Marj Barstow nor Margaret Goldie were part of either of the student groups: according to Erika, Marj “was in the middle somewhere”7 and Margaret Goldie was ‘part of the inner circle’8 (i.e the Alexander brothers, Irene Tasker and Ethel Webb).

Erika’s attitude to Alexander work was very much conditioned by two factors: one was the influence of her father Hans Schumann9a German musician who, having lived and worked in China, was steeped in Taoist philosophy – correspondences with which Erika intuited in Alexander; the other was her first exposure to Alexander’s ideas as an 8 year old child, encouraged by her Aunt Ethel Webb to attend to her use whilst doing the things she anyway wanted to do. Years before the first training course Ethel Webb was asked by FM to take his place giving a presentation about his work at a girl’s school. As she was leaving he said to her, “You can do anything you like, but don’t do what I do”. This was the spirit of the work which FM inculcated in his apprentices, Ethel Webb and Irene Tasker, and the one which Erika was ready to explore when the first teacher training course began,

Erika valued highly the application work her group did with Irene Tasker during the training course. This seemed to her a continuation of what she had first learned from her Aunt in 1919 and had tried to put into practice in 1929 and 1930 at Ashley Place, both helping her aunt with administrative work and helping Irene Tasker in the Little School:

“I had learnt that from her in those early days and took that knowledge with me into the training course when it began in 1931”.

“She (Irene Tasker) used to ask us to dinner in her tiny flat and one person would peel potatoes, another do the sprouts, another do something else, but it was all to do with keeping your length in a useful activity, some people sitting on the floor and some on the sofa. And why not sit on the sofa? Be comfortable! Sit right back with the support behind your back and make yourself comfortable. It was all very alive and with the idea that you carry the Alexander work into the things you are doing. You are observing and not just standing around ‘doing Alexander work’.

“On the whole I think I learnt more from my work with Irene Tasker in the school with the children (….) The Alexander work was always connected with the school work that they were doing, and that could be painting, for instance.”10

Years later Marj Barstow was to acknowledge the importance of the work with Irene Tasker:

“I think Irene Tasker was of more value than we could realise at the time we were in training. Now I appreciate what she did for me more and more.”11

So Erika and the others in Trevelyan’s group were not dissatisfied with the training course.

“We knew FM did not believe in telling people what to do, it was up to us to make our own discoveries. We each, in our own way, gradually became aware of the changes in ourselves, our ‘use’, our attitudes and ‘posture’ (as others saw it). The training-to-be-a-teacher was not mentioned until some time later when several of the students felt FM was not teaching us to teach. I do not think FM ever intended teaching us to teach in the usual way that training for a profession is considered correct.”12

In focussing more and more on hands-on teaching, Erika felt that Macdonald’s group were missing the point:

“I began to see more clearly why FM had resisted all attempts to categorise our progress and had such problems answering questions that seemed to him irrelevant and strange, since he put his working principles plainly before us. It was a case of the Chinese saying: ‘There are answers to questions that are never asked’.13

For Erika the training course was primarily a study of one’s own reactivity and use in daily life: a means to an end, not an end in itself. She was of the opinion that the group which began to focus on ‘how to take people up’ were making that the end, thereby leading Alexander’s work in a wholly different direction. If Alexander’s oft repeated injunction “Don’t copy me!” had been heeded, then each person who began to explore and give life to these ideas might, instead of trying to conform to some kind of ideal, discover their own individuality; other forms of teaching could then emerge – rooted in practical self-knowledge developed from the application of the principles to the activities of life, in all its rich variety.14

Visiting training courses after a gap of half a century, Erika saw the consequences of those events in the 1930’s. Many students were struggling to make the link between the kinaesthetic experiences of the hands-on work and daily life.

What to Erika had been a fluid and experimental investigation of the inner content of Alexander’s discoveries had now taken on a definite form – with procedures, checklists and regulations. Now we are all copying Alexander.

Erika’s comment that it was “all about teaching” began to make sense. She always refused to ‘play the role of the teacher’, gently shifting the character of each encounter to sharing moments in time and space; you were simply being with Erika.

All this is not meant to criticise or denigrate all the wonderful teachers who do teach by releasing muscle tension, by ‘taking people up’. On the contrary; thank goodness for them and the pioneering work of the first generation teachers and their dedicated students. But perhaps a whole other discipline, glimpsed by that ‘other group’ all those years ago – less about ‘teaching’ and more about ‘living’ – has yet to evolve.

1. F. Matthias Alexander: the Man and his Work, Lulie Westfeldt, p 135. Published by Centerline Press, California (back to text).

2. Ibid. p 41 (back to text).

3. An Examined Life, Marjory Barlow, p.81, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002)  (back to text).

4. Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, Sheldrake Press 1986, p13  (back to text).

5. Walter Carrington on the Alexander Technique in discussion with Sean Carey, Sheldrake Press 1986, p13  (back to text).

6. An Examined Life, Marjory Barlow, p.80, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002) (back to text).

7. Ibid, p.197, 2002), Publisher: Mornum Time Press; First American Edition edition (October 2002) (back to text).

8. In conversation with the author (back to text).

9. Hans Schümann was granted a post at the German Consulate in Shanghai by Kaiser Wilhelm II. He published in 1924 an esoteric text about correspondences between mathematics, music and universal laws;  Monozentrik. Eine neue Musiktheorie, Stgt., Grüninger Nachf. Klett 1924. Monozentrik  (back to text).

10. Alexander’s Way, Erika Whittaker, STAT Journal No 13, Autumn 1993, Editor; Adam Nott (back to text).

11. Memorial Lecture, Erika Whittaker, 1985, STAT (back to text).

12. Alexander’s Way, Erika Whittaker, STAT Journal No 13, Autumn 1993, Editor; Adam Nott (back to text).

13. Memorial Lecture, Erika Whittaker, 1985, STAT (back to text).

14. In Japan, for example there are strong ties between Buddhism and Hitsuzendo (Calligraphy), Ikebana (Flower Arranging) and some martial disciplines. The outer activity is also a medium for inner, spiritual work. Erika sometimes mused about possible links between craftwork Alexander work. (back to text).

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – Pausing is not Stopping

A pause is not a stop; they are quite different. A pause implies that one is going to do the thing, but not yet. A stop has no such implication. We are free to do something else.

If you press the pause button on an old-fashioned cassette player, the motor is still engaged but with, so to speak, the brakes on; as soon as you release the button the machine can only continue in the same direction it was going. If you press the stop button, other options become available; you can rewind, fast-forward, record or even remove the tape.

Real stopping means giving oneself real choices.

But take care! With choice comes responsibility.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Tips4Pupils – End-gaining

“This end-gaining business has got to such a point – it’s worse than a drug” 1

FM Alexander

One of the biggest, though not always most apparent, obstacles to applying the twin forces of inhibition and direction in our everyday activities is “end-gaining”. What is “end-gaining”? Is there an underlying metaphysical assumption that predicates it?

At a very fundamental level, end-gaining (i.e. going directly for an end without consideration of or attention to the processes, or the means, whereby such an end can be brought about) is dependent upon a conviction,  either conscious or unconscious, that the centre of gravity of one’s life is somewhere else or some “when” else and not in the here and now. It is not a question of speed, or even of tempo. End-gaining cannot be said to be a mental, physical or emotional activity, although it affects all three.  End-gaining is a ‘state’. Like a drug, or as FM said “…worse than a drug“, it seems to permeate us at a cellular level.

When I am end-gaining I am “out of sync” with my life.

Unless there is an ontological acceptance that one’s life is happening here and now, and that it cannot be otherwise, we become very susceptible, as is a host to a pathogen when resistance is low, to either end-gaining or, arguably even worse, a kind of dreamy lassitude (see Aimless and Purposeful).

The pull to gain an end is part of the human condition; it is always waiting to reclaim us and our energies. It takes us away from “process”, and consequently away from a real sense of self.

Our “use” – in particular the disposition of our mental, physical and emotional energies – is axiomatically part of any process, whether we are aware of it or not. When we are attending to process – even if only externally – we are open to possibilities which are not there when we are in a state of end-gaining or of lassitude.

It is, in my experience, of great value to try and study for oneself – and in oneself – the phenomenon of ‘end-gaining’.

Here are some suggestions:

  • What triggers end-gaining in me? Is it something mental or emotional? For example, is my brain busy making lists of things to do? Am I worrying about getting everything done “in time” or of letting other people down?
  • What is the form of it? Does it make me speed up, be more tense, make mistakes? Do I feel as though I am pumped-up with caffeine?
  • Can I let it go? Is it possible for me to shift myself back into the here and now and attend to process? Or am I possessed by it? What resists letting go of end-gaining?
  • How do I experience myself when I am ‘attending to means-whereby’?

We cannot eliminate end-gaining, but we can certainly reduce its strength and duration.

“I always think the best test one can make on oneself is simply, in the middle of an activity, go away, walk away and maybe look out of the window or open the front door and look out. If you mind the interruption, it means you are end-gaining.”

Erika Whittaker 2

By addressing the universal tendency to end-gain, and developing a practical method of directing attention to means-whereby in activity, Alexander’s work has resonances with teachings from East and West, ancient and modern, about latent possibilities in human beings.

1. Teaching Aphorisms: The Alexander Journal No 7, 1972, published by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. Also published in Articles and Lectures by Mouritz (1995).
2. In correspondence with the author.

© 2013 John S Hunter