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.
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
One of my closest friends was the first person I heard coin the name ‘the surgeon’ for Peggy Williams.
“She puts her hands on me and they feel enormous, like I imagine Alexander’s did. She just opens me up. I call her ‘the surgeon’. She can put me right in two minutes”.
With PR like that, how could I resist…!
I had been teaching for a couple of years and still did not know very much. I was already having lessons with Margaret Goldie and with Patrick Macdonald, but my friend assured me that Peggy’s work was something different again.
Peggy lived in High Point, an upmarket 1930’s modernist apartment block (designed by Berthold Lubetkin) in Highgate, London. She was always very welcoming, but definitely didn’t like anybody arriving late.
Standing in front of ‘the chair’ on a thick rug in my stocking feet, I felt her ‘enormous’ (yes they felt like that) hands arrive on my shoulders and start to press them down. The more they released, the more I went up!. It seemed as though my whole frame was going up from the inside and that there was no end to it. With a prod at my hips, my knees went forward and then I was in the chair. I went on going up.
Getting out of the chair was easy if you kept the back back; something Alexander insisted on, she said – adding that many young teachers coming to her would ‘lurch forward’ as soon as they felt the slightest pressure on their backs.
Then she would put me on the table, still chatting throughout; her ‘surgeon’s hands’ would go to work, opening up my whole body. Under those hands everything just let go, and I knew then what my friend had been talking about.
The lessons mostly followed that pattern, and at some point she would always ask “Well, any news?” She loved to hear what was going on in the Alexander world and always had some good gossip to exchange.
There was a lovely flow of direction as she worked, and she kindly commented once that it was a pleasure “to work with someone who knows how to direct”, adding that giving me a lesson was like receiving a lesson, because I had so much direction. She would often make supportive remarks like that, which was very encouraging for a young teacher. When I was grumbling once about some persistent difficulty, her response was “Don’t worry! It must come right in the end, because the direction is there”.
Mostly she would stimulate the upward response of the anti-gravity mechanisms with her hands on my (troublesome) shoulders, or with one hand on my head and the other on my back. Once though, coming off the table, she took my head forward and up with such clarity that I can almost feel it as I write now, some 25 years later.
I continued to see Peggy every couple of months for about three years between 1986 and 1989.
I was very glad to have had that experience, particularly from a senior teacher not only trained by Alexander but also strongly associated with the Constructive Teaching Centre, where she taught for 17 years.
An Interview with Peggy Williams, by Glen Park, is very helpful reading for all teacher-trainees.
© 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 Williams, 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