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
“When you are asked not to do something, instead of making the decision not to do it, you try to prevent yourself from doing it. But this only means that you decide to do it, and then use muscle tension to prevent yourself from doing it.”1
How fortunate that Ethel Webb, whose ear was attuned to when FM Alexander said something worth taking note of, recognised the significance of these words spoken by him to a pupil during a lesson and wrote them down so that they could be preserved as one of the “teaching aphorisms”.
FM’s pupil, although he or she might have been saying inwardly the words “don’t do it, don’t do it!”, nevertheless had the intention to do it, and the body responds to intention not words.
One way I explain it to pupils is as follows:
The physical body is analogous to a well-trained animal, always listening to it’s master’s voice, waiting to be told what to do, wanting to obey and carry out what is asked of it. However, the language that we use for our inner and outer talking is not one either the animal or the physical body understands very well. In the case of the latter, every time we feel an impulse to act in some way we begin to stimulate neural activity, and muscles get ready to do work. The trouble is that we are so often very unclear about what we want, or don’t want, to do. The poor body gets contradictory messages and, like the animal in our analogy, begins to get stressed.
By making a decision and having a clear intention, the body begins to respond in a quite different way; sometimes mind and body can, like horse and rider, be as one. We are moving in the direction of greater integration.
This is not easy. Many people avoid making decisions, little realising the psycho-physical consequences thereof. Making decisions means taking more responsibility: it also means confronting the very deep-rooted patterns of so-called individuality to which we are very attached.
Fortunately there is another “individual” waiting to be discovered, but more on that another time.
Erika Whittaker told me once, much to my surprise at the time, that what Alexander really wanted from his pupils was that they would learn to make their own decisions. Over the years, this has come to mean more and more to me.
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).
© 2013 John S Hunter
When I need to undertake a task of some sort there is an inner activity and an outer activity. The sequence, according to Alexander’s ideas, of “inner events” is something like this:
- say “no”!
- consider my options
- make a decision
- organise myself (head, neck & back etc.)
- work out my “means-whereby” (the best way to do it)
- reconsider (I can still change my decision)
- let my head go forward and up and get on with it
Is it not the case, though, that there is often an assumption that as long as my neck is free (etc.) I am “using” myself well?
Think of any task involving a number of necessary actions. For example, decorating a room: I might need to move all the furniture into the centre of the room or even out of the room all together.
Where am I going to put everything? Which items should I move first? Should I empty drawers or bookshelves before trying to move heavy furniture? Where might I store the contents ? Etc, etc……That’s before I even start preparing the surfaces to be painted.
Unless I work out my means-whereby before I start, I am likely to have to do a lot more work than necessary.
If I start moving a sideboard around with no idea where to put it because I filled the only large enough space with piles of books, BUT….. I keep a free neck – does that mean I have “good use”?
Compare this with the practical man or woman – amateur or professional decorator – who, before starting, thinks things through and works out the optimum sequence of events, BUT….. stiffens or collapses somewhat while doing the practical work.
Whose “use” is better?
Taking a moment or two to consider the means-whereby we are going to carry out an activity (the best way to do it) can bring a new dimension to our understanding of the use of the self.
© 2013 John S Hunter
I am often asked why I work so much with ‘walking’ when I am teaching, and there are a number of reasons:
- human beings evolved as creatures that walk, more than as creatures that get in and out of chairs
- although many of our habits and misuses are in our support system, many are in our patterns of movement; and our primary movement is walking
- using ‘hands-on’ to direct a pupil’s head forward and up and into movement is an excellent way to demonstrate that a small change of ‘orientation” has a big impact on ‘carriage’
- the ‘angle-poise lamp’ model of the musculo-skeletal system (the antagonistic pulls of head against hips against knees) is very helpful for understanding bending movements, but for walking we need to understand kinaesthetically the natural trunk rotations involved in weight transfer; see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11240051 and
As with many habits, an injury may have set up a pattern which subsequently becomes the norm.
- I have often observed that people trying to put into practice “inhibition” and “direction” are able to find a certain ‘tone’, particularly in the back, because of the antagonistic pulls of the support system, but then inadvertently block the capacity of the pelvis and thorax to counter-rotate freely. Whilst lengthening can help to free up the counter rotations, the corollary is also true; finding freedom in the rotary movements can facilitate lengthening.
For a trained Alexander teacher it is not so difficult to adapt what you have been applying to ‘chair-work’ to ‘walking’; just use your powers of observation and your refined kinaesthesia and get your pupils walking…….
© 2013 John S Hunter