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Alexander Technique Teacher Training

by Jonathan Dean MSTAT(more info)

listed in alexander technique, originally published in issue 42 - July 1999

A Personal Quest


Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955) developed his Technique from his experience as an aspiring actor with a recurring vocal problem: a susceptibility to hoarseness and loss of voice. Unable to gain lasting medical help from doctors, he decided to take matters into his own hands and, with the aid of mirrors, began a long period of self-study and experimentation. As he gradually became aware of the various unconscious habits which came into play when he went to speak, one pattern stood out particularly: a tendency to stiffen his neck, pull his head back, and, as he put it, "shorten in stature", which was creating pressure on his larynx and causing his loss of voice. With time and practice he evolved a practical method to free himself of this habit and eventually recovered full command of his voice, as well as a markedly improved general level of health. He returned successfully to the stage, before deciding to devote the rest of his life to teaching his technique to others.

 

Back to Basics

I am lying down on a firm table in the semi-supine position – head supported on books, knees bent up. I am getting used to the strange, but deeply pleasant experience of lying 'straight' on the table, as my initial attempt at lying down in what I thought was a 'straight' position had turned out to be wildly crooked! My Alexander teacher, Trish Hemingway, is slowly moving my legs to and fro, inviting me to let go of tension in them, although I am not to do anything other than just 'think' of letting go. I was not aware of being tense at the beginning of this – my first lesson (as I remember it, some eleven years ago) – but as it goes on, as Trish places her hands around my head and on my shoulders, I gradually start to feel more relaxed than I have ever felt in my life before. By the time she has magically spun me off the table and I'm back standing on my feet, something extraordinarily deep seems to have shifted in me – I feel taller, more grounded, more 'present' to all the sights and sounds around me.

Scenes from a training; teacher trainer, John Nicholls, takes students through typical hands on procedure.

Scenes from a training; teacher trainer, John Nicholls, takes students through typical hands on procedure. (Copyright Carolyn Nicholls)

I have been receiving my first lesson in what F. M. Alexander called "the use of the self". (Not the 'use of the body' as is sometimes thought, but the use of the whole self – mind and body inextricably linked.) Until I started my lessons I was, like most of us, ruled principally by habit, doing things the way that felt 'natural'. Here I am having it gently pointed out to me that this has led me to a state of tension, where I tend to "misuse myself" much of the time, relying on a good deal of excess effort. I am taking the first steps in becoming more conscious of myself and learning to 'do less', to start to undo the layers of habit. I am choosing to "use myself" better.

This is what the Alexander Technique is all about, letting go of habits and experiencing a different, easier way of being. It is grounded in very simple activities: you look at movements like getting in and out of a chair, walking, and bending down; you look at how you breathe and speak; you're principally looking at matters of balance, poise, and movement, but always in relation to what's going on in the mind – the layers of mental conditioning that underly the outward habit. One can see why people tend to immediately associate Alexander Technique with 'posture', but you may also start to see why it's about much, much more.

A Teacher's Tale

"The work is to do with really getting to know your own habit and moving through your own habitual area", says Dorothea Magonet, who originally trained as a physiotherapist in Germany, but has now been working as an Alexander teacher in this country since 1982 and is the current chairperson of STAT (The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique). Initially drawn to the Technique because she wanted "to explore a different way of working with people", she took intensive one to one lessons over two months before joining a teacher training course.

"One of the major differences between the work that we're doing as Alexander teachers to working as a physio, is that the relationship between patient and therapist becomes one of pupil to teacher, and that's a very important switch. As soon as someone goes into a hospital setting or a clinic setting, they 'become' the patient." The Alexander approach is primarily reeducational: in working at improving their "use", people are immediately asked to take responsibility for themselves. This also applies to trainee teachers on their course. "In the physiotherapy training", continues Dorothea, "you do not really learn how to look after yourself so that you can integrate it. You learn 'about' it and you pay lip-service to it, but it's a different thing. And this is where the Alexander training is so important because you essentially learn to work with yourself whatever it is you want to do, and then you learn the teaching skill and how to transmit that."

So the key element in the teacher training process is learning to look after yourself. As the Technique concerns itself so much with questions of poise, balance and coordination – encouraging the pupil to make less effort and experience greater ease and freedom of movement – it's no use at all if the teacher is in a state of stiffness, tension and imbalance. This places a huge responsibility on the teacher to be always in the best possible state (mentally and physically) for teaching, and is the main reason why three years' training is considered essential before one is ready to go out and work on members of the public. In addition, one is not in a position to help others unlearn their habit patterns unless one has first of all followed the same process to a very refined level. In this sense there is something of a parallel with psychotherapy, where the trainee therapist has to undergo therapy herself if she is to fully understand the process her clients will go through later.

Visiting a School

John and Carolyn Nicholls' teacher training course is set on the lower ground floor of their pleasant Victorian house in Brighton. Going in you see a typical Alexander teacher training course in action: some students are working quietly together in pairs, some are lying down in semi-supine position, in the main room Carolyn is giving students "turns" (short, individual lessons), and in the conservatory John is taking a group of four fairly new trainees through a basic 'hands-on' procedure. This is a good example of how trainee teachers learn to look after themselves and work on their own "use" while at the same time developing some of the basic skills necessary to use the hands sensitively and efficiently in supporting and guiding movement. The basic procedure is the standard Alexander one of guiding someone in and out of a chair. The students take it in turns to be 'teacher', 'pupil', and 'observer', while John moves around using his own hands to check what's going on, and giving verbal instruction and feedback. He gently guides the 'teacher' student into the so-called "monkey" position (which resembles the very beginning of a squat), so as to encourage in her conditions of maximum balance, openness, and muscular release, before allowing her to place her hands, palms open, freely and smoothly on the 'pupil'. Again the process of checking and guidance takes place before the 'pupil' sits by herself and the 'teacher' student follows the movement – maintaining the hand contact – as easily as possible.

As students get more advanced, they learn how to initiate movement in the other person, how to take weight (e.g. of an arm or leg, if the person is lying down), and how to give clear and relevant verbal instruction. But whatever the student practises, he is always conscious, first and foremost, to maintain the quality of his own "use". Two aspects of the Technique are particularly relevant here. First, the principle of attending to the means involved in doing anything, rather than working directly for the desired end. "If you start getting straight in there and using your hands to try to pull the pupil about, then your hands actually communicate tension and effort", states John, speaking from twenty-three years' experience in training teachers. So it's important for the trainee teacher to pause momentarily before using his hands, to check that he is first in a relatively poised state. This links in with the second key principle, that of the head-neck-back relationship (or "primary control" as Alexander called it). Tension habits easily disturb the delicate balance of the head in relation to the spine, which in turn affects the freedom of the arms and hands. When the trainee student pauses before placing his hands on someone, he does so in order to allow maximum freedom in the head-neck-back relationship, so that his hands will move freely to communicate a releasing stimulus. To quote John Nicholls again: "we teach you the skill of applying your hands in such a way that your hands have an elastic and open quality because your whole body – and in particular your back – has an elastic and open quality".

Training Today

Training courses have moved a long way from their beginnings in the early 1930s, when Alexander first took on a dozen or so pioneer trainees. It seems that then, apart from the individual "turns" with Alexander himself, it was very much a matter of the students learning the hands-on skills for themselves. Now, with over 2000 teachers worldwide, and 1000 students training to become teachers, there is a considerably more structured approach to learning. The teacher-pupil ratio is 1:5, allowing for as much individual attention as possible, and most training schools follow a basic curriculum focusing on the development of hands-on skill through certain standard procedures, a thorough understanding of the key principles of the Technique as explained in Alexander's own writings, and knowledge of relevant anatomy and physiology. There is a system of external moderation whereby experienced teachers from outside the training course are brought in to ensure equality and fairness of standards, and to qualify, students must have completed a requisite 1600 hours of training. The new teacher is eligible for membership of STAT (conferring the title MSTAT), but will need to have gained considerable practice teaching both individually and on training courses before he is eligible to run a training course himself.

Laura Parthenon and Christine Baden-Semper are two students in the first year of their training at the Constructive Teaching Centre in Holland Park, London. Together they testify to the wonderfully uplifting, but profoundly challenging experience of training to be a teacher. "The first term was a real knockout!", says Laura, who gave up her own business in Finland to come and train. "I still have very long naps in the afternoon." The fatigue commonly felt on training courses is due partly to the physical changes the work brings about and partly to the emotional and psychological aspects of change. Christine, a retired dance teacher, explains: "With the various releases that go on – I don't know if they're attached to your history (you put that tension in when something happened to you), but I've found myself being thrown back on little bits of my past and having to reconsider. I have a feeling that I'm on a voyage somewhere – I've left harbour, I'm floating, and there are no fixed points, so you just have to trust that you'll get to where you're going."

Christine has inadvertently found the best analogy for the Alexander teacher training experience: that of embarking on a journey. It is a journey that is at once personal and practical, learning about yourself and learning real skills, a mental process and a physical one, combining thought, feeling, and action, and with one level always subtly feeding into another. It is an education that is very much centred on the whole person, and in that sense represents a unique and fascinating process.

Further Information

For further information on the Alexander Technique, and a list of qualified teachers in your area, contact: STAT (The Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique), 20 London House, 266 Fulham Road, London SW10 9EL. Telephone: 0171- 351 0828 Email: enquiries@stat.org.uk or visit the Web Site at www.stat.org.uk

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About Jonathan Dean MSTAT

Jonathan Dean trained to teach the Alexander Technique in Paris and London, qualifying in March 1994. He now runs successful private teaching practices in North and South London, in addition to giving talks, workshops and introductory classes. He can be contacted on 0171 328 2435.

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