On Getting in and out of a Chair. “Hats off!”
They will see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. 1
The Chair! For so many teachers the sine qua non of the Alexander Technique. And, of course, we have all seen the little film of the Master taking Margaret Goldie – looking rather like a puppet – in and out of a chair.
It was 1985 or ’86 and I had only recently started having lessons with Margaret Goldie. “Chairwork” had taken on a completely different character. It was never about getting in or out of a chair this way or that way. I began to see that every action or non-action that happened in a lesson was about what was happening in my brain. What Alexander had been at pains to write about in his four books began to make sense in a way that, up until then, it had not.
More than once during this time of coronavirus, Albert Camus’ novel La Peste has come to mind. Set in the Algerian city of Oran in the 1940’s during an outbreak of the plague, the whole city is in quarantine. It is a fascinating, multi-levelled piece of writing. One of the main characters, Joseph Grand, aspires to write a prose-perfect novel but his search for perfection has become an impassable barrier. He explains to his friend Dr Rieux:
“What I really want, doctor, is this. On the day when the manuscript reaches the publisher, I want him to stand up – after he’s read it through, of course – and say to his staff: ‘Gentlemen, hats off!’
Rieux was dumbfounded, and, to add to his amazement, he saw, or seemed to see, the man beside him making as if to take off his hat with a sweeping gesture, bringing his hand to his head, then holding his arm out straight in front of him. That queer whistling overhead seemed to gather force.
“So you see,” Grand added, “it’s got to be flawless.” 2
Not a bad aspiration by any means, you might think, but Grand does seem to be getting lost in the details:
“I’d like you to understand, doctor. I grant you it’s easy enough to choose between a ‘but’ and an ‘and.’ It’s a bit more difficult to decide between ‘and’ and ‘then.’ But definitely the hardest thing may be to know whether one should put an ‘and’ or leave it out.” 2
Rieux persuades Grand to read him the all-important opening sentence of his manuscript:
Then, pitched low but clear. Grand’s voice came to his ears. “One fine morning in the month of May an elegant young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.”
Silence returned, and with it the vague murmur of the prostrate town. Grand had put down the sheet and was still staring at it. After a while he looked up.
“What do you think of it?” 2
Rieux politely responds that his curiosity is whetted and he wants to know what comes next but, in his search for perfection in the opening sentence, it seems that Grand has not succeeded in getting beyond it.
“That’s only a rough draft. Once I’ve succeeded in rendering perfectly the picture in my mind’s eye, once my words have the exact tempo of this ride – the horse is trotting, one-two-three, one-two-three, see what I mean? – the rest will come more easily and, what’s even more important, the illusion will be such that from the very first words it will be possible to say: ‘Hats off!’” 2
During that period back in the 1980’s I have a vivid recollection of a morning working in a teacher-training course. One of the teachers there confessed to the students that she could not immediately think how to respond when her pupil had asked her, “What happens when I can get in and out of a chair perfectly? What happens then?”
My lessons with Miss G flooded into my mind. “But it’s not about getting in and out of a chair” thought I.
This teacher however, after what must have been a very pregnant pause, had responded, so she informed us, thus:
“Why then, you make an art of it!”
Later that morning there was a coffee-time reading from one of Alexander’s books – I forget what exactly it was – but the contrast between the material in the reading and the practical work taking place was startling. After the reading everyone went back into their routine of trying to get each other in and out of chairs “perfectly”. The precise and detailed feedback they gave each other seemed to differ only in the medium from Grand’s obsession with finding le mot juste.
The procedure had become an end in itself: another example of the medium becoming the message.
The exposure we all get to the daily repetition of what happens – including what is said – in a training course conditions us to accept it as “right”, even to the extent of rejecting what happens in other such courses. As one of my colleagues once said to me, surprising even herself by always going back to the same place for refresher courses, “It get’s into your nervous system.” There are many kinds of addictions to which human beings are susceptible.
And the books? That’s a whole other matter.
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. La Peste, Albert Camus (translation by Stuart Gilbert)
© John Hunter 2020
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 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:
“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. (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