This is a second interview responding to questions put to me by Kaye Ashton after she spent some time doing post-graduate study on my teacher training course in Sydney.
Kaye: If, as you said last time: ‘teaching must be approached as a learning experience if one wishes to become a better teacher’, what are some of the lessons that you have learned from pupils you have worked with?
Simon: Everything I know!
Clarity about what you’re trying to teach, coupled with an honest appraisal of whether or not you’re achieving it, allows you to teach yourself how to teach. For example, most teachers learn early on that it’s not particularly useful to tell the student everything they know about the Technique in the first lesson. Now this is not a particularly subtle lesson to learn, but leading on from here we develops a more reliable idea of what concepts to introduce and when.
A variation on this would be how much information to give the student concerning what is ‘wrong’ with them or what they’re doing ‘wrong’. Even if the information is correct, we need to learn what information will be useful at a given moment, and by that I mean actually helpful to the aims of the lesson. It can be counterproductive to be too explicit in this regard: you can make the student more anxious and trigger over-effort and ‘concentration’ habits which will make them unteachable. This leads to frustration on both sides.
So in broad terms, we need to be monitoring the effect our words are having on our students. To insist on saying something because it’s ‘correct’ even though it’s having a negative effect on a student, is very poor teaching indeed.
In a similar way, we should also monitor the effect their hands are having. As a teacher, it’s a lot easier to remember to look after yourself when you’ve had practical experience of how doing so helps the lesson. The importance of your own use then ceases to be a theoretical assertion and becomes an important practical consideration. You can even monitor your own use by monitoring the effect you’re having on your student! Once you learn to consistently put on a good Alexander hand, you will then begin to perceive how you can stimulate in the student the changes that are needed.
Kaye: I remember you saying to me when I spent time on your post-graduate course that ‘teaching is problem solving’. Could you explain more about the practical application of this idea.
Simon: Yes, all teaching is problem solving. Each student, each lesson, is a new puzzle and the joy of teaching is in cracking it. There’s something a student doesn’t understand and you need to figure out what that is, and find a way to help them understand it. It may be through explanation or analogy, it may be through an experience or an activity. Perhaps you can just show them. You need to get creative and try stuff out.
There’s no simple system that’ll tell you what to do in every possible instance. I know this for a fact as I tried to elaborate such a system when I started teaching. I hadn’t even got around to writing any of it down when I noticed that there were just too many inconsistencies. I abandoned the attempt.
Another practical example may help. You have a new pupil and you’ve started the lesson on the table. You quickly ascertain that they’re very heavy. Now you can just soldier on in the hope that telling them to free the neck will remedy this but you probably won’t have much luck. You can run through all the standard moves you were taught during your training —take the head, take the legs, check the breathing, etc— and still not get much going. So what do you do? Well, you hypothesise and put your hypothesis to the test.
Perhaps the student believes this is what they’re supposed to be doing. Perhaps you’ve miscalculated the number of books they need under the head. Perhaps the student is really collapsed and will need more time before things liven up. You can’t know the answer by referring to something you’ve been taught on your training or read in one of Alexander’s books. You have to experiment. As you gain experience as a teacher, you’ll find that your hypotheses are more often correct than not, that you get it right on the first or second attempt.
Of course this presumes you know what it is we’re after. This can only be gained through the experience of teaching and working with experienced teachers. On a basic level we’re looking for lightness instead of heaviness, mobility instead of rigidity, elasticity instead of tightness or flaccidity, connection instead of disconnection. Where it gets complicated is that we need to balance all these factors. With experience you learn to recognise, get a feel for, when someone is ‘going up’. Just like learning any other practical skill, it’s a question of patiently plugging away at it. There will be the odd ‘revelation’ but for the most part you can’t cram skill development. Beginning teachers should definitely take every opportunity they can to teach or share practical work with other teachers.
Kaye: If ‘having the experience [of integration/ coordination] is not the end of the learning process’, what thoughts, practices or experiments could the pupil undertake between lessons to increase their reliability in implementing the process?
Simon: To most people’s disappointment, there’s no simple system or list of instructions here either. Through repeated experience, coupled with the teacher’s explanations, the student begins to understand that experience. From there, through experimentation, they begin to learn how to apply the Technique to more and more activities with an ever increasing reliability.
This is something they can only do for themselves.
From the very beginning, you must try to apply what you’ve learnt to your daily life. If it doesn’t seem to work, then you use your knowledge and experience to try to figure out why not. You then put your hypothesis to the test to see if you’re right. If you’re still at a loss, you can consult your teacher. Roughly speaking, we have three stages of learning: experience, understanding of that experience, and solo flights. These stages do of course overlap and reinforce each other.
To assist my students, from the very beginning I suggest they choose a couple of everyday activities —walking, getting in and out of a chair, opening doors, anything really— and to try to apply what they’re learning to just these activities. I do this because the idea of applying the Technique to everything is too daunting for most and they’ll quickly abandon the endeavour. Once they’ve gained experience applying the Technique to a couple of simple activities they quite naturally begin to bring that skill to others. I also emphasise that I’m not asking them to practice these activities in order to get them right, they should merely attempt to apply what they’re learning to these activities —as an experiment— to see what happens.
Occasionally I will get a student who is really stumped about how to apply the Technique to some particular activity and when I ask them to explain further, it’s clear the problem is that they’re not applying the Technique at all. They’re trying to get it right, figure out specifics, trying to maintain a correct position or something of that sort. If they’re sufficiently experienced they readily recognise this when I point it out. If not, this just means we need to refocus on learning the Technique.
What must be remembered is that it’s not important what you do nor even how you do it. What’s important is how you are as you do it. This idea is not particularly intuitive and is therefore easy to overlook. With practice we begin to naturally incorporate this understanding into our approach to both new and familiar activities. This is why the ‘how you are’, the ‘going up’ in other words, should be the focus of AT lessons.
Kaye: You have said that ‘directing is an active process: not only the projection of messages but also the necessary energy for things to happen’ and that ‘up is dynamic and firm and has substance’. It seems to be the type of energy that moves an intention to go the shops to actually going to the shops. Can you comment?
Simon: In the first quote I am actually paraphrasing a footnote found in The Use of the Self. What is meant is that directing is not akin to imagining or thinking about something. You have to be willing something to happen, ensuring that something in particular actually does happen. It has a clear effect. That’s the reason for directing. It’s not simply a question of thinking the right thoughts, not at least in the way ‘thinking’ is usually understood. Directing is a different activity altogether.
Kaye: Where does that energy go when we’re awake when it’s not being directed?
Simon: Energy is always being directed. What we’re aiming for is to direct it efficiently. By directing consciously, we’re taking responsibility by exercising some choice over how our energy is directed. When we’re not, the energy goes down habitual pathways, our current default settings let’s say.
Kaye: Regarding thinking and doing, would you agree that you can’t think yourself out of a slump or collapse. You have to do something?
A question like this depends entirely on what you mean by ‘think’ and ‘do’. What we need is to experiment and develop our discrimination.
The Alexander Technique is a practical skill, not a philosophy. It’s important not to get caught up in the words. It’s only through experience that we can learn to distinguish between the type of ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ that we want and the types that we don’t. As long as you have the humility to not assume that anything that pops into your head is necessarily and eternally correct, you’re always open to deepening your understanding, you probably won’t go too far wrong.
Kaye: What might FM have meant by his words: ‘I want your whole body imbued with thought’? Was he talking about energising or directing ourselves?
Simon: I suppose he was, though bear in mind he was talking to a specific person at a specific time. He was trying to correct a problem and that phrase seemed to be a reasonable way to describe what was needed. Alexander may have gotten a wonderful result from this description. He may have got a horrible result. He may have got no result whatsoever but the student thought ‘Wow! That’s deep!’ Perhaps, like yourself, the person thought ‘what does that mean?’
These things aren’t universal and there’s no point repeating them parrot style. If, on the other hand, you’re working with a student and you think this phrase (or any other) will help then of course use it. In other words, we must teach to the moment. Teach the student we have in front of us, taking into account how they are in that moment. And don’t forget the all important next step: monitor how the student actually responds to the idea and adapt as is necessary!
Kaye: Do you think that that direction is ‘on’ in small children all the time?
Simon: As I was saying before, we’re all directing all of the time. Direction is on for everyone all the time. What is at issue is whether or not we’re directing our effort efficiently. Children are usually directing fairly efficiently, though not consciously. They can also pull down mightily, and I think it important to remember this.
Kaye: Can we change direction mid action or do we need to stop and start again?
Simon: Can it be done? Can I do it? Can you do it? These are all very different questions and may well have different answers. As a starting point I suggest you try it out and see for yourself. You would then give provisional acceptance to whatever you come up with.
It does depend on the activity. Some activities take so little time to complete that if you mess up the start, it’s too late to do anything about it. Others are more continuous. For example, if you’re walking and realise you’re making a mess of it, there’s no need to stop walking then inhibit and direct before starting again. There is in fact a lot to be learnt by trying to sort yourself out on the move. On the other hand, if you’re stepping up from the road to the footpath, there’s not much you can do if you mess up the beginning.
Kaye: Last interview you said that by: ‘doing we mean deciding beforehand what the correct result is, what should happen, and then directly setting about to achieve this’. What are a couple of examples?
Simon: There are endless examples and if you monitor your attitude regarding most activities with this distinction in mind, it won’t take you long to spot your own. As I keep saying, we won’t gain a practical understanding of the Alexander Technique just by reading about it.
I am happy to give a few examples to get you started though. In the last interview I mentioned how both standing up ‘straight’ and ‘relaxing’ could equally be considered ‘doing’ if approached with a fixed idea as to results. We can directly attempt to bring about our conception of the right result (doing) or avoid things we know will interfere with these activities and see what happens (non-doing). Breathing is another clear example. You might think you know which parts of you should expand and so work directly to make that happen, or you could avoid things that interfere with a free expansion of the ribcage and see what happens.
The important consideration here is that, even if your conception is largely ‘correct’, we can’t just impose a correctness on ourselves, independent of our present conditions. There is a physical side to the psycho-physical unity. Correctness is something which grows over time. Trying to force a result or speed up a change will only create more confusion and frustration.
Kaye: If you sense that the pupil’s concept of ‘relaxing’ may be an impediment, how would you encourage a different interpretation or understanding of the term?
Simon: I would usually start with an indirect explanation about what is required, that is I try to not make it obvious that I’m talking about them in particular, then lead them towards the experience of ‘going up’ pointing out the advantages of this different way of being.
Relaxing may seem like a good idea and something you can just get on and do, but once we start to ask what exactly am I to relax, how much should I relax it, and how will I know when I’ve achieved it, it starts to seem like something extremely complicated if not impossible. Understanding the benefits of an indirect, non-doing approach will usually make sense from this perspective.
In extreme cases I may tell them explicitly to not relax, to firm up or even make themselves rigid. This of course is not a general principle but sometimes it’s the only way to get through to someone.
Kaye: You use your ‘hands almost constantly as their principle function is to feel what is going on in the student, and thus help ascertain what it is that the student needs to learn’. What kind of needs would these be?
Simon: What all students need to learn is how to get themselves going up, how to lengthen in stature to use Alexander’s phrase. In order to learn this there needs to be a linking up of correct ideas and experiences. The variations of pulling down are infinite however with my hands I can perceive or at least have a pretty good idea of what is going wrong and by extension how to go about correcting it.
How I proceed depends on what I believe will be the most effective. Often it will be to simply demonstrate what is required. If the lower back is tightening for example I can show them how to stop doing it. When it’s ok —or the best I can get it for the moment— I don’t hang about, I go searching elsewhere for problems. I may later return to the lower back after removing interference from perhaps the legs to see if I can get some more improvement. Perhaps a guided activity will do the trick, that is, I explain and manually guide them through the activity. Other times a new idea or a change of attitude will suffice.
The student must also learn how to take this same quality into activity, but this is actually the simple part of the learning process and most can sort this out for themselves and there’s actually great benefit in them doing so.
Kaye: In training courses the trainees are taught practical procedures (monkey, hands on back of chair) and placement of hands. Does it matter where you place your hands on a pupil?
Simon: There are no absolutes in the Alexander Technique and this is a prime example. On the one hand, of course it matters where we put our hands. Otherwise, we could just put your hands anywhere and keep them there for the entire lesson. No-one does this and clearly no-one means this when they say it doesn’t matter where you put your hands. However, we’re not going to give the student the right experience, regardless of where we put our hands, if we aren’t going up as we do it.
If we’re at a stage in our development where this is the kind of question we’re asking then, very definitely, where we put our hands is not important. There are many things that need to be developed before the subtleties of where we place our hands will make any practical difference. Our hands will become more sensitive and effective as our own use improves and as we gain experience we’ll quite naturally start to respond to what we’re feeling in the student and this will guide our hands.
Kaye: Recipients of ‘hands on’ sometimes say about the owner of the hands: ‘you have beautiful hands’ meaning a delicate light touch. Do you think ‘beautiful hands’ equates with effective hands? What are the qualities of effective hands?
Simon: Humans as a rule like being touched and so gentle hands can be pleasant. A firmer, massage like touch can also be well received. This is all well and good. I have no arguments against pleasure. However, the purpose of the hands in an Alexander lesson is to teach the student the Alexander Technique. They will be effective to the degree in which they’re teaching the student how to prevent what is causing them strife. There is a skill and a subtlety of perception in the use of Alexander hands that goes well beyond feeling nice.
This skill is a product of experience and the teacher’s capacity to use themselves well. For example, students will often note how light my hands are but this isn’t because I’m holding them off or trying to have a light touch. As a norm I very definitely drop my hands on the student, rest the weight of my arms on them. The lightness is the result of taking myself up. By doing so I can maintain a connection with the student which allows me to perceive what’s happening that I very definitely could not achieve with held-off light hands.
Effective hands essentially carry out two functions. Firstly they perceive what is going on in the student and secondly, they have the capacity to bring about positive change in the student. Both these skills can be developed to a remarkable degree. From the students perspective Arthur C Clarke’s third law comes to mind: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. That is, skilled Alexander hands may seem magical but they are in fact the result of years of patient development.
Kaye: You mentioned that one reason a person may stiffen is due to an incorrect conception. Alexander spoke of incorrect conceptions. What did he mean and what do you mean?
Simon: The freest neck in the world won’t help you achieve your goal if you have a incorrect idea of how to go about achieving it. Crude examples include pushing on a door that needs to be pulled or trying to open a bottle of bleach without squeezing the cap before turning. A more subtle one is the belief that you need to take a breath, make a positive effort to draw air into you lungs in order to breath. Alexander talked quite a bit about this one. If you inhibit and direct masterfully but then proceed to suck in breath you will not improve your breathing and probably make all sorts of unnecessary effort.
Kaye: Twenty years ago I don’t remember ‘coordination’ being so prevalent in the Alexander lexicon. Verbally, coordination seems to be used instead of ‘neck free, head forward and away …’ Do you think that they are labels for the same end? If yes or no, how are they similar or different?
Simon: ‘Coordination’ was used on my training course. It was considered a good word for what we were going for. And you will find the word in Alexander’s writings where he is often contrasting general coordination with the specific coordination of say a limb.
Alexander observed that attention to what he termed the primary control (head, neck, back relationship) was the way to achieve this improvement in general coordination. He also considered the primary control as an indicator of the degree to which we are coordinating ourselves. Thus we have a criterion to judge if we’re doing something in a harmful way or not. This is very useful when learning a new activity.
Kaye: If you don’t introduce directions until the person has some coordination what do you work with in the meantime?
Simon: I don’t introduce directions until I feel the student will be able to direct effectively. In the meantime, I spend a lot of time calming them down, reducing anxiety, freeing them up, generating some upward energy. Through inhibition (and my hands) they’re introduced to direction before it’s put into words. This is the essence of non-doing. A more appropriate direction presents itself to us as we begin to reduce harmful uses of our energy.
Kaye: The ‘posture’ word or association is sometimes not popular as it connotes fixedness, however, you don’t seem bothered by this, in fact you said that AT is absolutely about posture. Can you elaborate?
Simon: There are a lot of sound-bites floating about the Alexander world and this is one of them. They have their uses but we need to be careful as they are not all encompassing. These types of phrases arise in a specific context and to use them effectively we need to ask ourselves what problem are they trying to solve or what question are they trying to answer.
In this example, we can understand the reasoning: the Technique is not posture training in the chest-up-shoulders-back variety so the Technique has nothing to do with posture as most people understand it. This is correct as far as it goes. However, by improving overall coordination, we do bring about improvements in posture. In this sense, it’s clearly wrong to say the Technique has nothing to do with posture. It’s not only about posture but good human shaping is a necessity, most people do it badly and the Technique can remedy this.
Trying to sell constructive conscious control won’t get you very far. I’ve never had a student show up for a first lesson seeking their share of man’s supreme inheritance. They often say they have postural problems and would like to know if I can help them. And, of course I can! The Technique needs to be expressed in terms that people will understand. It needs to be presented as something that will help them, as something they can see will be worthwhile pursuing. Whether or not they intend to later delve into some of the more profound aspects of the Technique is their business and not a prerequisite to starting down the AT path.
Kaye: What does 21st century science tell us that supports FM’s work or otherwise? What are you reading or finding interesting in this area?
Simon: I’m not the best person to ask about this. My area of interest is in developing my practical skill and teaching it to others. That being said, I do keep my eyes and ears open and am not aware of anything that would contradict a mature understanding of our work. When talking about the relationship between AT and Science, we need to distinguish between the actual Technique that Alexander developed and the various theories that have been advanced as to the underlying mechanisms involved. The latter are not the Technique as such and interestingly Alexander actually had very little to say about this.
Advancing science will definitely change these sorts explanations, but I don’t think it will change the practice of the Technique. As an analogy, advances in our understanding of physiology, neurology, etc, may help better explain aspects of violin technique but are very unlikely to change how people actually play. The reason being that both violin and Alexander’s Technique are practical skills and we can clearly observe what works without needing to understand the underlying mechanisms. Although we can see a relationship between these two disciplines and various branches of science, it is of course very unlikely that either would ever have evolved in the science department of a University. Science will help us understand what experienced AT practitioners are doing and how it works but I doubt it will tell what we should be doing.
On a related point, I think it’s a mistake to piggyback ourselves onto other people’s research. By that I mean point to research not about the Technique and say ‘that proves we’re right’. It makes us look cultish and can leave us in a bad place when said research proves unsupported or superseded by further research. An early example of this was the claim that the Technique was the result of Pavlovian conditioning. This now sounds ridiculous of course. What we should pursue is original research with clear objectives. Tim Cacciatore is an example to follow in this regard.
We should also not be shy about saying there’s a lot we don’t understand yet. Human anatomy, physiology and neurology, etc is incredibly complex. The fact that we do not understand how it all relates to the Technique does not in any way disqualify what we’re doing. Science has not had the final word on walking yet, but this does not mean that we should abandon the practice or call its usefulness into question. We don’t know everything about the mechanisms which underlie the Technique but in many regards that’s not part of our job description. Most of us are not scientists with the relevant expertise to do any useful work in this regard. Science, by the way, has no qualms about admitting to the limits of its knowledge. To quote Dara O’Briain (the Irish comedian) “If science thought it knew everything it would stop!”
Kaye: You said that FM devised a technique – not just principles or ideas. Can you elaborate?
Simon: We can’t understand a practical skill without the experience of putting it into practice. Alexander developed practical procedures to get there. These procedures (monkey, hands on the back of the chair, etc) have a double purpose: they make imbalances obvious and provide a means for correcting them. By thoughtfully practising them we gain the experience of what Alexander meant by the words he used. The words after all were describing what he had experienced and observed.
Words can mean almost anything and will certainly mean different things to different people. We need concrete shared experience to be able to communicate what we mean. Many take the quote by Alexander that ‘we are just at the beginning of this work’ to mean they can skip over what they imagine is the boring difficult stuff Alexander did and go straight on to ‘applying the principles’ to more exciting activities. The problem is you can’t apply the Technique before you’ve learnt it and you certainly can’t expand on FM’s work or take it further until you understand profoundly what he was doing and why. This can only be achieved through direct experience, without which it’s very easy if not inevitable that you will go off track.
Kaye: Thank you Simon for taking the time to participate in this insight into your Alexander experience.
Simon: Always a pleasure.
Kaye Ashton graduated from the Melbourne Alexander Teacher Training School (MATTS) in 1994. She taught AT until 2000 and then worked full time in an office environment at RMIT University, using the Technique to advantage. The love and interest in the Technique did not wane, however, and she has recently started teaching again.