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
“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
“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 Schumann9, a 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:
“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
“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
“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
“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. (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
There was a time when “keeping the back back ” was the sine qua non of teaching and learning the Alexander Technique. It could be said to be the physical equivalent of inhibition (but that is for another post).
There are some lovely diary entries written by Eva Webb which suggest that “keeping the back back” was quite the norm at Ashley Place. Somewhere along the line it has fallen into disuse.
In 1947 Eva had her first session with FM, then lessons with Irene Stewart, Margaret Goldie, Patrick MacDonald, Max Alexander, Dick Walker and Walter Carrington; thirty three lessons in total over a period of two months.
“They teach leaning back against their hands to prevent entirely the old lurch forwards.”
“It is still difficult to remember to lean back a little when support is given”
“For goodness’ sake remember the slight lean back.”
“Instead of coming back I was pressing back.” 1
Although Patrick MacDonald was the “first generation” teacher most often associated with the injunction to “keep the back back”, the point was made most dramatically to me by Peggy Will, who once quoted FM Alexander as saying to the students while she was on the training course:
“Never in a thousand years will you make a teacher of my technique unless you can keep your back back.” 2
Frank Pierce Jones describes this process:
“The subject, sitting in the experimental posture, is asked not to alter the balance of his head while the experimenter rests a hand lightly against his back. As the experimenter gradually increases the pressure of his hand in a horizontal direction, the subject equalizes the pressure by coming back instead of going forward as he would ordinarily do in response to such a stimulus. When the pressure reaches a certain level (varying with the distribution of tonus in the subject’s back and his ability to inhibit a change in the head-neck relation), the subject will be brought easily and smoothly to his feet.” 3
I think it is a great pity that many teachers have let this aspect of Alexander work almost be forgotten and that many were never even taught it, so in this post I would like to talk about some of the reasons why I think it is important and how I use it in teaching.
When we are upright, simply standing, clearly work is being done by our musculo-skeletal system in order to oppose the force of gravity. We recognise, instinctively one could say, that the work which is being done is of a different nature or quality to when we are doing other kinds of work with muscles – to move ourselves in space or lift objects, for example; work which is more obviously volitional.
Certainly there are postural reflexes at work, nevertheless, when standing, one could decide to “switch off” the muscles involved and thereby cause the body to drop to the floor (Delsarte referred to this intentional withdrawal of energy from muscles as “decomposition”). So there is still an element of volition involved, but again of a different nature to when I am “doing”. We experience it as a kind of “background volition”: I simply decide to be upright.
When I put my hand on a pupil’s back I allow my whole frame to expand, and the expansion along my arm is away from my back, which is staying back. Because of my training I activate this expansion in such a way that it stimulates the same expansive response in the pupil, but only if he or she opposes my hand.
There are, however, different ways of opposing me. The pupil could:
- simply lean back
- “do” something (ie.voluntary muscular work, and it doesn’t matter which muscles) in order to push against me
- stiffen to prevent movement
None of the above is what is wanted.
However, if the teacher is sufficiently integrated, free and expanding, the contact with the pupil gives a strong stimulus to the anti-gravity response of the whole musculo-skeletal frame. The teacher is then providing both an enhanced gravitational downward force whilst at the same time stimulating the appropriate upward response of the body’s support system. With a little patience, and a clear explanation of what is required from the pupil, it is rare for this not to work. A pupil in time realises that he or she can use gravity to” go up”, but they are not “doing” it. He or she can be taken into movement in the way Jones describes above.
Keeping the back back, without stiffening or pushing, is a subtle, but rewardingly effective way to activate the primary control, without too much focus on “release” as an end in itself.
From here one can explore how the support system is also activated by the correct relationship between the head, neck and spine. Also how it can be, and often is, interfered with in response to many and varied stimuli.
1. F.Matthias Alexander and The Creative Advance of the Individual, by George Bowden (ISBN: 0852430027, Publisher: L. N. Fowler & Co. Ltd) (back to text).
2. In conversation with the author (back to text).
3. Freedom to Change, by Frank Pearce Jones (Chapter on “Experimental Studies: Reflex Responses”:ISBN-10: 0952557479, ISBN-13: 978-0952557470, publisher: Mouritz 1997. First published as Body Awareness in Action. (back to text).
© 2013 John S Hunter