By South East Alexander School, Jul 2 2018 07:38PM
When two animals encounter each other it is usual for there to be a brief and almost ritualistic 'getting to know each other' - a sorting out of the pecking order, a deliberating on whether this other animal is friend or foe, a gaining of understanding about the other from which differing reactions and behaviours can ensue.
Curiously, something different and yet in many ways not dissimilar, frequently happens between Alexander teachers upon first meeting! In my experience when two Alexander teachers meet, there is a brief and maybe unconscious 'sussing out of each other', which may involve asking, among the normal niceties, where one was trained, and how long one has been teaching... In a few brief words this can offers illuminating information about a teacher's background, of how closely connected they are to FM Alexander's teaching, and offers clues about their approach to Alexander work - without having to ask! For me this is always an interesting and enlightening moment, as so much can potentially be revealed in these first short interactions, that can then inform the ensuing conversation!
For me much of this information reduces down to 'lineage': Alexander himself trained people as Alexander teachers at different stages of his life, during which time he continued to develop his work and to refine his ways of teaching this to others, which naturally meant that his focus, when training others, shifted slightly as he gained more experience and understanding, which inevitably led to differences in teaching styles. And so, over time, different 'families' have emerged within the Alexander world, as a result of which first-generation training school (or A.T. training course descending from one of these) a teacher trained at. As I see it, there are perhaps four main 'Alexander families', each with their own individual flavour (there may well be others, however I have encountered four main 'families'). Of course everyone is working the same common denominators of inhibition, direction, enhancing the primary control etc, however the way in which these will be worked with differs. For instance the people who have trained with Patrick MacDonald, or 'descendants' of MacDonald, tend to have a relatively dynamic approach to teaching, with a lot of focus on 'going back and up', with feet wide apart, whilst being taken frequently in and out of the chair with the spine remaining more or less vertical. And there seems to be more focus on 'releasing out' rather than 'connecting in'. Teachers who have trained within the 'Water Carrington family' will on the other hand tend to have a teaching style which I experience as having a greater sense of connectedness and groundedness, with more focus on counterbalance e.g. feet not quite so wide apart, and bending forwards from the hips rather than keeping the spine vertical whilst moving in and out of the chair. And similarly there are general and definite differences in the teaching style of 'descendants' of Wilfred and Marjorie Barlow, or with people who trained with Marjorie Barstow.
For my part, I am of the lineage of Alexander teachers who have come through 'the Walter and Dilys Carrington line': I trained at Fellside Alexander School with the late Don Burton, who trained at the Carrington's, who of course trained with Alexander. Additionally I was lucky enough to also work with many first-generation Alexander teachers, and to experience Alexander's work as 'first-hand as I could get', which is something that sadly teachers training today no longer have the opportunity to experience. I found it immensely interesting both experiencing the difference in teaching approach between Marjorie Barstow, Patrick MacDonald, Walter Carrington, Eric De Peyer, Peggy Williams and several others, and also to hear them talking about their work. I used to love to ask these first generation teachers what they were doing with their hands, and why they were doing whatever they were doing whilst working on me. Patrick MacDonald described to me how he was looking for an 'up-thrust in the spine’, whilst Peggy Williams told me that her hands were simply 'listening to what the pupil's body was asking for', before then 'going with this’, to 'draw out a release. Such different focuses, yet both people had trained with F.M!
Personally I consider myself fortunate and honoured to have completed my training with Don Burton, having initially spent my first year training at a W. Barlow- style school, which did not suit me so well. Don was an inspirational and unique Alexander teacher who was brave enough to step outside some of the more rigid beliefs about how training should happen within the Alexander world, and pioneered a ground- breaking and holistic, person centred, well-rounded Alexander teacher training, unlike any other. Don bought much to this training, including his previous experience as a physiotherapist, and also as a practising meditator, and created a training course in which each individual could not only learn the nuts and bolts skills of being an Alexander teacher, but could also 'unfold' and develop as a human being, learning to become more of who she/he really is. The training incorporated studying Alexander's principles, his books, and learning about his life...applying these understandings to a wide range of activities, so that as budding teachers we were well equipped to relate this vital, health-giving work to people from all walks of life and from all backgrounds. We worked with movement and dance, with singing and speaking, with drawing, with observation, with applying Alexander principles to horse riders, actors, musicians, pregnant women … We developed a sensitivity and a 'listening quality' with our hands...We learnt anatomy, physiology, embryology, and about a range of physical conditions that pupils may present with... we were coached in the basics of Transactional Analysis to help us in our relating to pupils and peers, undertook supervised teaching practice, assisted in running courses for the public and generally had an eye-opening and life-enhancing training time. I will never cease to be grateful for this unique and wonderful training, which changed the course of my life and will continue to do so for years to come.
As part of this training visiting teachers from all the different 'Alexander families' came to work on the course, and as students we were subjected to a wide range of differing approaches to the technique, which was at times confusing and at other times enlightening, and ultimately, I feel, gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the differences of teaching styles within the Alexander world. Don actively encouraged us to find our own teaching style – to take what worked for us as individuals and make it our own, rather than simply imitating his way of working. I believe that Alexander himself said words to the effect of "Don't do as I do, go out and make this work your own". And yet there are still, to this day, on-going debates within some of the professional Alexander bodies, about whether teachers should be teaching as FM did (back in the early 1900's), or whether it's okay to more openly interpret his principles and express these in one's own way, making them more accessible to people in the 21st-century.
Personally speaking, I believe that if this important work is to survive and continue into centuries to come, I feel it is vitally important that the work stays 'alive'... that it is made relevant to each individual pupil that comes for a lesson - which means that as teachers we need to have the skills to relate Alexander's ideas in a variety of ways, and be able to a appropriately 'meet' a wide range of different people. And so I feel saddened that I often hear phrases such as "Oh, I tried the Alexander Technique but it didn't have much to do with my life" or "I didn't really understand what it was all about and it didn't seem to have much relevance to me" or "I wanted to get help with my performance (singing, playing an instrument…), but the teacher just told me to sit and stand and this did not help me to perform better!” I feel that it is terrible that pupils can be easily turned away from the Alexander Technique because their teacher did not have the skills to make the work pertinent and personal to the pupil. I feel that it really is time to allow this amazing work that has such potential, to blossom and grow, and for this to happen teachers need on the one hand to have permission to make this work their own – to express Alexander's discoveries with their own words, in their own way, and on the other hand teachers need to be better equipped to find ways of really 'meeting the pupil', rather than simply imposing a set of principles, regardless of why the people may be coming for lessons.
One of the greatest gifts that I feel I was given through my training was that I was believed in and trusted to find my own way from the experiences I was subjected to and with the skills that I was given. I was actively encouraged to experiment and to express something of myself through the work, and that above all I was encouraged to use my intuition, rather than work from a place of dogma. This has always served me incredibly well, and enabled me to work with anyone who has come to my door regardless of background, profession, presenting condition or age.... whether working one-to-one, or in a group setting. I feel I have such a lot to be grateful for, and so it is now, with great pleasure, that I am beginning to train people as Alexander teachers myself, and indoing so to continue my treasured 'Alexander lineage' into another generation of teachers, who I trust will be well equipped to continue the teaching of this life-enhancing work into the future, for the benefit of generations to come.
I loved my visits to Fellside during my training - it was different from my training but familiar nonetheless because Dick and Elisabeth Walker also had a trainee-centred approach and expected that we develop our own teaching art. We were actively encouraged to visit other schools, experience other approaches and develop a confidence as learners that Elisabeth expressed as "trust the Technique", take what you can and leave the rest, stay curious and stay open.
Both had taught all their lives after training with F.M. but only started training in their 70's. I resonated with so much of what you said because of the 'broad church' approach, we had visitors from their training cohorts - and they had worked with everyone, and many of them visited the training course in Oxford. Dick taught at the Little School and with F.M. with Patrick McDonald and with the Barlows. Elisabeth taught with the Carringtons. They too understood the 'families' in much the way you have described and incorporated these backgrounds as different interpretive frames.
And they had their own very distinct ethos. I'd characterise their 'family' as committed to openness and respect for people's existing experience because they firmly held that the principles could reach towards anyone. Their openness led them to take up Irene Tasker's practice in South Africa where they were socially and politically connected with the generations that refused Apartheid. Within their ethos was a commitment to life long learning as a path best trodden with the Technique - Elisabeth's book about all this is titled Forward and Away.
I tell you all this to say they were possibly a distinct 'family' headed towards exploring what might come next. And we also headed out to South Africa to see if we could add to the growth and development of the Technique there. But sadly we reached an impasse under the circumstances of a post-colonial, new democracy and ? society.
The full time training model is interpreted by SASTAT Council to be inflexible. Approval for our training course has been withdrawn. So ATI sponsorship will need development if the future is to be secured and you are likely to be approached by some of our students for assesment to join ATI as teaching members !
Thank you so much for adding your thoughts Sharon about another crucial and invaluable "Alexander family". It is always such a joy to hear of Alexander teachers who are open-minded and wishing that trainees/teachers find their own way, to ensure the continuation of this wonderful work. I do so hope that all the Alexander professional bodies become a little more flexible and open-minded, so as to help with the needed growth and development of this work – if it is to continue! I look forward to assessing your students as and when…
Fascinating to read about your AT 'lineage' Delia. Thank you.
As your AT pupil, I experience you achieving the balance between honouring the wisdom of the past - FM Alexander and your teachers - and yet being present and free to create whatever intervention I truly need in that moment. A great gift to be able to so do.
In my own experience I have also discovered that the purpose in learning, practising and mastering a 'fixed form' or path (in my case a form of movement) was to create a foundation or doorway, through which I could step into my own 'free' expression. From these intuitive expressions and explorations, new 'fixed forms', relevant to that particular, time, space, energy, group or individual could emerge, crystallise and be repeated - and in turn create the basis for yet more freedom and future repeatable forms.
Yes, it's wonderful how flow and growth can move between 'fixed' and 'free' - the contraction and the release, the 'chucking away of what we know' in order to discover what it really there...what is really our own...to 'find and loose only to refind' anew.... all in the name of freedom and becoming more of who we really are!